When we hear the phrase ‘coming out the closet’ we immediately think of homosexuality: that is the prime example of an issue where people feel they need to “hide” because of the way they could be treated by society and the stigma attached to it.
Of course, for many, being gay is a reason they do find themselves ‘in’ the closet, but it is not the only one. Recent studies, published by leading charity Student Minds, said that while 30% of university students will suffer from mental health issues, only 10% will report it to the university, while 75% would talk to a friend. Why then is there the difference? I think it is mostly because society has built the same stigma around having a mental health problem as exists around being publicly open about your sexual orientation. I certainly went through the same experience not knowing who to tell that I suffered with anxiety, or how people would react. Would it affect my job prospects? Or how I was treated by the university and by friends? This is my experience, and thankfully mostly positive, of coming out the closet with anxiety.
During my second year at University, I found myself increasingly stressed and worried for no good reason; worrying about results more than necessary and ending up making myself ill or upset letting thoughts of failure go round and round in my head, even though I was succeeding. To a certain extent, I did what many people have done and told myself, “this is normal” and “I’m sure everyone worries this much”, even though I knew it was not true. And sometimes it made me feel like utter rubbish, as if whatever I did there would be no chance I would ever be good enough. What then made it even worse was my inability to speak to anyone as I was constantly worried about how others would judge me, if they would see me as the person that buckled under the pressure and couldn’t cope. So I put on the same façade that I’m sure many have created: I ensured, in other words, that the closet door was firmly locked and not going to open.
Eventually, however, it all became too much and I found myself unable to cope and decided I had to change. Thankfully, I had the help of some amazing friends that supported me, who I was able to talk too and even came along to my first meeting with Enabling Services. They made me feel like I could cope, even though at this point I could not really admit how I felt, they realised that I was not me, that something was affecting the way I behaved. I then managed to go on my own journey of self-discovery as I attended sessions with Steps 2 Wellbeing, a Hampshire service run by the NHS, and met other people who suffered in similar ways to me as their anxiety took control of their emotions and behaviours. The group sessions allowed me to discuss my issues and thoughts in a safe space, it allowed me to open up myself and realise that mental health problems can be overcome with strength, community and – most importantly – friendship. It will certainly be a rocky road: I split up with my boyfriend at the time and sometimes worried that the process would not work for me. But you have to keep going, as eventually you pull through and realise you can overcome this and that the stigma will not beat you.
One thing, however, strikes me more than anything else and that was that all the worries I had faded away. I didn’t feel judged differently, or like ‘that’ guy; people never made me feel different and were only ever supportive. The stigma, I realised, is as much in our own heads as it is in society itself. The stigma, really, comes from the fact we don’t talk about mental health and then we build up these preconceptions about how we would be treated if we revealed how we felt. Rather we feel like we must adopt the British manta of having a ‘stiff upper lip’, and then being able to talk about mental health difficulties becomes itself problematic and traumatic for so many people. But from my own experience, I can say the most difficult bit was building up the courage to seek help and realise that I would not be treated differently. The difficulty was building up the determination to come out the anxiety closet but once I did it was like a weight was lifted off me and I was able to get the help which has now allowed me to improve so much.
We need to talk about anxiety, so that we can remove the need for trauma surrounding “coming out the closet”, as once people can be open and honest, half the battle is already won.