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Viewpoint: Your Mental Illness is Not Who You Are!

Published: 05 June 2018 Tags: LGBT, Mental Health By James Harris

Mental health issues and the LGBT community have been in the spotlight over the past few months, particularly in light of recent high profile stories such as Dale Winton and stars such as Duncan James talking about their struggles with depression. James Harris looks at mental health and the LGBT community and the importance of being open and honest when it comes to talking about our mental well-being.

As if coming out as LGBT wasn’t already enough, due to the stigma that still lingers around the topic of mental illness, many of us also have to ‘come out’ as suffering from depression, anxiety or addiction etc.

It’s a regrettable fact that those who identify as LGBT are statistically more likely to be exposed to stress and suffer from mental illness, and self-harm, succumb to addiction, or end their own lives as a result. But it’s important to realise that there is nothing inherently ‘fragile’ about being LGBT that makes this so; as a minority vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination we're simply subject to additional pressures.

The need to talk about mental illness is urgent for us all, but particularly so for the LGBT community.

So, what makes mental illness such a prevalent problem today? The reasons can vary widely – from genetic predispositions and personal misfortune or traumatic experience, to broader factors that affect us all.

The world has changed dramatically in recent history, and – much like the polar bear struggles to survive in a rapidly warming environment – it continues to do so at a rate arguably faster than we can psychologically adapt to.

Crowded, urban living conditions and limited access to therapeutic green spaces is more the norm than ever. As an individualist society our sense of community has diminished, and studies show that actively belonging to a community increases happiness. Where we once felt useful by completing tasks ourselves - fixing, growing, building, cooking etc. - tasks are now completed for us; so many skills that once gave satisfaction have been lost. The ubiquitous presence and widespread reach of media technology means we’re regularly confronted with comparisons between our own lives and others’ – celebrities, friends on Facebook – exaggerating quite erroneously our sense of redundancy and inadequacy.

In an increasingly overpopulated, competitive society, we find it more and more difficult to find our place and purpose; there always seems to be someone else who can do what we can, only better. But just because we can’t do something perfectly, doesn’t mean it’s without merit; we are all unique, and whatever we’re good at, no-one else could ever do it quite like us.

An extensive awareness of global events gives a disproportionate impression of how dire things really are, at least in relation to our own immediate concerns; this daily barrage of bad news is overwhelming, and can immobilise us with a sense of powerlessness, disillusionment and loss of hope. The Guardian refers to it as the “overdramatic worldview” caused largely by selective reporting:

“It’s harder to know about the good things...progress is too slow and fragmented to qualify as news.”

An overabundance of choice compounds dissatisfaction; what we have is spoiled by a restless fear of missing out. In such a materialistic, goal-driven society, we rarely give ourselves chance to enjoy the moment, to appreciate what we have now instead of futilely striving towards the ever-receding promise of tomorrow. It's little wonder that Buddhist teachings of mindfulness have become so popular!

On a smaller – but no less devastating – scale, personal traumatic experiences can lead to mental illness. As the inspirational schizophrenia survivor and leading psychologist, Eleanor Longden, attests:

“Voice hearing is a survival strategy, a sane reaction to insane circumstances.”

We often think of mental illness as an inextricable part of our personality that we must accept and live with. But in truth it is a stubborn, deteriorated state of mind, and states of mind can change.

The perception of mental illness as an affliction of the self (and not the physical mind/brain) is at the root of the stigma hindering a more open, healing discussion on the topic. It's easier to say we've got a broken leg and for others to give us sympathy for it, than to say we're struggling mentally and for others to support us, because the misguided assumption persists that an affliction so intimately connected to our inner-being, indicates an incurable fault in who we fundamentally are.

Subsequently, misplaced shame suppresses our willingness to open up about our struggles and seek help.

But our mental illness is part of who we most fundamentally are, no more than a broken leg is. It was only recently that discriminatory attitudes towards the physically less-abled were the norm, but thankfully this is no longer the case; there’s no reason why the same cannot happen with attitudes towards mental illness.

Essentially, in many cases – if not all – mental illnesses can to a significant degree be explained as a rational response to extreme conditions unconducive to the thriving of our full potential. Therefore we are not inherently and irreparably damaged, just vulnerable to the trauma of tragic experience, and not yet equipped to fully deal with the demands and overstimulation of a hectic, turbulent modern world.

In many ways it’s this world that’s to blame, and it’s this we should change. Because while mental illness is certainly not necessarily something ineradicable we must meekly concede to and grudgingly endure, it is definitely not our fault, and it is not who we are.

Don’t forget that LGBT Foundation offer a range of counselling services and support for further information visit https://lgbt.foundation/talkingtherapies

Useful links

NHS – Mental health issues if you're gay, lesbian or bisexual:
https://www.nhs.uk/Livewe…/LGBhealth/Pages/Mentalhealth.aspx

Good news at last: the world isn’t as horrific as you think: https://www.theguardian.com/…/good-news-at-last-the-world-i…

Eleanor Longden TED Talk:

https://www.ted.com/t…/eleanor_longden_the_voices_in_my_head

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