Content warning: mental health illness, self-harm, suicide.
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Just Like Us LGBTQ+ Ambassadors Millie Morfitt and Bradley Agnew share their stories of growing up LGBTQ+, their experiences with mental health issues, and share some practical tips for managing your mental health.
At 23 years old, I am incredibly proud of identifying as a gay woman and I would never wish to change my identity. However, I didn’t always feel this way.
I was twelve when I realised that my obsession with Rose Tyler from Doctor Who was more than a mere admiration, and my gayness became apparent. This came as a hugely unwelcome shock. I had heard the word ‘gay’ being used as a derogatory term since primary school and there were no ‘out’ lesbians in my Catholic high school. I became petrified that my friends and family would find out about my identity, assuming that their response would be rejection and ostracism. Consequently, I buried my identity deep down, barely even admitting it to myself.
The energy it took for me to conceal my true thoughts and emotions took a significant toll on my mental wellbeing. I was always on my guard and began to experience periods of anxiety from around this age.
It wasn’t until I started dating my now-girlfriend when I was 21 that I came out to everyone in my life, inspired by her confidence and self-acceptance. I am hugely fortunate to have supportive friends and family, and this was an almost incomprehensible relief, like an exhalation after holding my breath for years.
However, despite this reprieve, at this point my anxiety amplified to a much more intense level than I’d ever previously experienced. I became extremely socially anxious, even around my closest friends, and episodes of heart palpitations, light-headedness and panic attacks became frequent.
I was fortunate enough to start seeing a therapist, whose insights were invaluable. Through these sessions, I realised that my anxiety was a result of the shame I felt about my identity. This anxiety had heightened since I began dating a woman: now that I was confronting my reality, instead of hiding from it. My increased introspective understanding from therapy, and the support from my family, friends and girlfriend significantly improved my mental wellbeing. I learned to accept my identity and be proud of who I truly am.
Not long ago, I was a socially anxious teenager, terrified about someone finding out about my attraction to women and of the negative judgement that I thought would inevitably follow. I was so far in the closet I was basically living in Narnia.
I have used my experiences to fuel my passion for change. Now, as a Just Like Us Ambassador, I stand up in front of hundreds of people and share my story of growing up as a gay woman, in the hopes of inspiring other LGBTQ+ young people to live their lives, truly and authentically, and to embrace themselves as they are.
I’ve known I’m gay since I was ten, but during high school, dealing with homophobia on a daily basis became a source of significant anxiety.
There were no LGBTQ+ youth groups in my county growing up and no LGBTQ+ education in school, so I learned about LGBTQ+ identities from YouTubers. I eventually gained enough confidence to come out to my parents.
One evening, I told them that I had something to tell them, and they listened with patient concern as I tried to get the words out. After half an hour of pained stuttering, my mum started guessing what it could be and eventually asked: “Are you gay?”
I nodded. Then I started crying with relief, as they told me they still loved me. I felt my anxiety melt away.
As my confidence grew, I felt it was safe to come out to my friends at sixth form. But one day, I entered the common room to discover that a classmate had outed me to everyone, and my identity, which I had taken care to keep private, had made me a target for gossip and abuse. After being physically threatened, I decided to study from home and remained completely isolated for a whole year. My mental health declined dramatically. Losing all my friends caused me to become severely depressed, and I grew to hate myself and my gay identity.
When I finished sixth form I moved to Manchester, the queer capital of the North, for university. I felt I had moved on and left my trauma back in my hometown. But triggers caused me to relive it, and I crashed harder than ever before. Unable to cope, I attempted to take my own life.
After some time in hospital, a diagnosis of depression, anxiety and PTSD would be the start of my journey towards healing.
I took a year out of university and spent six months seeing a counsellor to work through my trauma. I realise how privileged I was to be able to hire a private therapist; the NHS had a twelve-month waiting list. I gradually realised that my mental health issues arose from my internalised homophobia.
I came out the other end of that year having resolved issues from my past and with tools to manage my mental health. One of these is embracing my queer identity and using it as a force for positive change in the world. In my role as a volunteer Ambassador for Just Like Us, I now speak to hundreds of kids in schools across the country to do my bit to help make the lives of LGBTQ+ young people better.
LGBTQ+ mental health matters
Our stories and experiences of mental ill health are unfortunately not uncommon in Britain today. Nearly half (45%) of LGBTQ+ pupils are bullied in school for their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to Stonewall’s 2017 School Report. As we have shown, this leads to LGBTQ+ young people being more vulnerable to mental health issues, with more than half (52%) of LGBTQ+ young people reporting self-harm and just under half (44%) having thought about taking their own life.
These statistics show that clearly there is a long way to go until we achieve full equality for LGBTQ+ people. However, our stories also highlight that, whilst we have experienced prejudice and discrimination as LGBTQ+ people, our shared struggle can create a strong sense of solidarity and belonging within our LGBTQ+ community. You are not alone and there are some amazing sources of support (including Samaritans – call them free on 116 123 – or MindOut, a LGBTQ+ mental health service) if you feel you need help.
Here are some of our top tips, from our own experiences, for achieving positive mental health as an LGBTQ+ person.
Top tips for achieving positive mental health
If you identify as LGBTQ+:
- Build a support network of friends and family you trust.
- Connect with other LGBTQ+ young people through charities and youth groups, online and in-person.
- Reach out for professional help if you feel that you need further support.
If you know a friend/family member who might be LGBTQ+ or questioning:
- Be mindful of not using homophobic, biphobic or transphobic language
- Express your support for LGBTQ+ people and causes.
- Let your LGBTQ+ friends and family know that you support them regardless of their identity.
Every one of us who cares about a LGBTQ+ person can take some action, however small, to help improve the mental health of our LGBTQ+ friends and family.