Mental health and self-harm
Depression and anxiety
Depression (feeling unhappy most or all of the time) and anxiety (a frequent nervous feeling) are mental health problems that a lot of gay people face.
Gay people are not born more prone to mental illness, though. Tthe instance of mental health problems in homosexual people is relatively high because of the difficulties they face in the community. Rejection, homophobia, low self-esteem, loneliness, and parental and religious pressure can be very draining and affect mental health over time. Being gay in a ‘straight world’ can be tough. Gay people often report that they’ve had to grow up faster than their friends because they’ve had to deal with very adult problems at a young age, often without support or guidance.
If you’re struggling with feeling low and/or anxious, here are some ideas to help you feel better.
Talk to someone
Keeping all your worries to yourself is bad for your mental health. Hiding your feelings and not expressing yourself creates stress, anxiety and anger. A person can become a big pressure cooker that needs to release! Talking can be help you do that. Talking about your problems means that you’re admitting them to yourself, which is just as important as sharing them with someone else.
If you would prefer to speak to someone who doesn’t know you, or if you want more impartial and professional guidance, counselling might be for you. Your doctor can refer you for free NHS counselling (there may be a waiting list), or find one yourself (see the mental health links here). See the NHS page here for more Information about counselling, the different types and how to access them. Anything you discuss with a counsellor is confidential, so you can open up about your sexuality and other worries without the people in your life finding out. Counsellors and therapists may also use special techniques such as hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy to help you adopt positive thinking habits and teach you techniques for coping when you’re having a hard time.
Do something. Do anything.
When you feel depressed, the desire to do the things you usually enjoy is diminished, along with your energy levels, motivation and enthusiasm. In conquering depression it’s important to avoid sitting around indoors or staying in bed all day. You may end up neglecting your friends, schoolwork and other responsibilities. Avoiding daily life leaves you trapped in your negative thinking and low mood. It’s not good for your body either, leaving you unfit and sluggish.
Get some exercise. It’s great for improving your mood and relieving anxiety, as well as maintaining your physical health too. Even just going for a walk on your own will lift your spirits and clear your head. By getting off the sofa and doing something, you are refusing to be a victim of your problems. The first step to making your life better may be as simply as taking a short trip round the block.
Many people find creative pursuits, such as painting, writing, music making, graphic design, model building etc. very therapeutic. Being creative distracts you from your worries, stimulates the mind and inspires you to explore other interests. You may be surprised afterwards at how little you thought about your problems while you were busy.
It’s easier said than done, but it’s very important not to indulge negative thinking. If you keep thinking everything is hopeless and that there’s no point, then life will keep on feeling that way. It’s much better to think about what you can do to make things better. Thinking positively will stop you feeling powerless.
Focus on the facts
When unhappy, we can fall into negative thinking patterns and assume a lot about situations and people. Do you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions?:
- Do you usually assume the worst?
- Do you think in all-or-nothing terms i.e. he hates me, I always fail, nothing ever works out etc.?
- Do you give new people a real chance before you write them off as not liking you or not being good people?
- When things are going well, or good things are happening, do you make yourself feel bad again by telling yourself it won’t last or that it’s not really as good as you thought?
- Do you tell yourself that you don’t deserve good things to happen to you at all?
- Do you overhear half a conversation and fill in the gaps, assuming negative things are being said about you?
- Do you jump to conclusions and get upset before you know the facts of a situation?
- Do you often think people lie to you or that friends tell you what you want to hear?
- When people spend time with you do you take their friendship at face value or assume they just feel sorry for you?
If you found yourself nodding as you read the above questions, then you are caught up in negative thinking patterns. It’s hard to feel happy and enjoy life if you automatically put a negative spin on things; it’s crippling. The way to overcome this behaviours is to always focus on the facts of any given situation and try to separate your emotional reactions from the reality. Getting caught up in wild interpretations and imagining what might happen is a distressing waste of time.
Keep the following in mind:
- You can’t read people’s minds, so don’t assume someone is thinking something bad about you. The only reliable way of judging how someone feels about you is by simply listening to what they actually say, and observing their actions. If you don’t even know the person you’re worrying about, ask yourself why you think it matters what a stranger thinks of you. Don’t waste time thinking about it.
- Most people are too wrapped up in their own thoughts and lives to be worrying about what you are up to. The world isn’t out to get you, because it’s too busy worrying about its own crap!
- Challenge your thinking. Is what you are thinking helpful or useful? What effect is your thinking having on you? How would someone else view the situation? What other, better ways are there of looking at this situation?
Live in the present
Bad things might have happened to you in the past but don’t let them rule you in the present. If you find yourself often thinking about the past, make a conscious effort to stop. You can’t change what’s already happened. That means letting go of mistakes you’ve made. You can be sure the other people around at the time aren’t still thinking about it. Focus on how you can avoid making the same mistakes – if it even was avoidable – in the future. Accept that things happened a certain way and think about how you can make life better now.
If you think you have deeper unresolved issues to deal with from your past such as bullying or bereavement, consider counselling. Talking about your past, perhaps for the first time, can get you out of the rut.
Make a plan
Think about the things you’d like to do and places you’d like to visit. Start to make a plan of action to realise these ideas. You’ll feel motivated if you have things to look forward to and work toward. Perhaps you want to go to university but have been too afraid to apply. Maybe you want to go on a holiday. What about something smaller like feeling confident enough to go on a date, or even just to go to a local restaurant you’d like to try? Set yourself goals, big or small, and think about how you can work toward them.
There are lots of good self-help books out there that can help you build confidence, deal with depression, and become more assertive. It’s well worth having a look around and finding a book that inspires you.
Your doctor may decide to prescribe you medication to help relieve the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Medication won’t solve the underlying problems or fix what’s bothering you, but it can help to balance your moods and relieve anxiety so that you can work on more long-term treatments such as counselling. Don’t be scared of a little help from medication if your doctor thinks it’s a good idea. They are not forever.
Self-harming is when a person deliberately hurts themselves as a way of coping with problems. People who self-harm might cut themselves with blades or scissors (the most common form of self-harming), pull their own hair, strike themselves with their fists or objects, burn themselves with hot water or hot object, or use other ways to hurt themselves.
People who self-harm often do it as a way of coping with intense and difficult feelings. A person might self-harm for a short period of time while they’re experiencing particular difficulties, while others may do it for years. Self-harm is usually a very private activity, so it’s hard to know if someone is doing it. Gay, bisexual, and transgender, people aged between 15 and 25, and those with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, are considered to be higher risk groups.
Low self-esteem (not liking yourself very much), distress over sexuality, and pressures at home or in school can all be triggers for self-harm.
A person might self-harm when they experience very intense feelings that they find hard to cope with or don’t know how to manage. By hurting themselves they bring about a feeling of relief and calm so that life feels a little easier to deal with for a while; it’s a way of letting off emotional steam. Self-harm can be a way of giving voice to emotional pain and gaining a sense of control over it. If a person if very depressed they may feel quite detached and numb. They may use self-harm as a way to feel more connected and alive. Self-harm can also be an expression of anger that a person has toward themselves. They may be punishing themselves for, in their eyes, ‘messing something up’ or being a bad person.
Self-harm and suicide are different things, and not everyone who self-harms intends to harm themselves severely or kill themselves.
- Decide that you want to stop
This is a big first step. Think about why you self-harm, how and when it started, and think about how you might address the root cause.
- Talk to your doctor
You may be suffering from underlying problems like depression and/or anxiety, that the doctor can help you with. Your doctor may also refer you for counselling which would give you the opportunity to talk about your problems with a trained professional.
- Talk to someone about it
A friend, teacher, school counsellor or family member. Deciding who to talk to is up to you, but it’s important to speak to someone you trust and has been supportive and trustworthy in the past. You may prefer to talk to a professional (like a doctor) instead of a friend if you are worried about your privacy. Keep in mind that some people will find self-harm hard to understand. Be patient and calm with them and try to explain it as best you can.
- Distract yourself
If you feel the urge to self-harm, try to do something else to occupy yourself until the urge passes. Do something you enjoy like spending time with a friend, going for a walk, watching your favourite film, listening to music, dancing, reading, being creative (painting, drawing, writing a poem, playing a musical instrument), go for a bike ride etc. You may find that physical activity that leaves you a little tired works best for you, and that exercise enables you to work out frustrations and anger. Going for a jog and tiring yourself out is better than hurting yourself. Find an activity that works for you.
- Safe alternatives to self-harm
Hit or scream into a pillow, flick elastic bands against your skin, hold ice cubes tightly in your hand or against areas of your body you want to cut or hurt, bite into something sour or unpleasant (but not poisonous) like a lemon or raw ginger.
When you feel the urge to self-harm, try to wait a while before doing anything. You may find that you calm down in this time and don’t feel such a strong urge to do it. Try to wait longer each time.
- First aid
Have first aid supplies to hand, like bandages and antiseptic cream.