This month marks Pride month, where people from around the world come together to celebrate LGBTQIA+ people. Pride is also a way of raising awareness of inequalities around gender identity and sexuality. Every person’s experience of being LGBTQIA+ is unique to them. However, the experience of discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, and difficulties around coming out are very common amongst the LGBTQIA+ community. For this reason and others, more people amongst the LGBTQIA+ community experience mental health difficulties. Common among those are anxiety and depression.

The topic of LBTQIA+ and mental health is one that’s very personal to me. I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa at the age of 17. Anorexia was, for me, a way to numb the strong emotions of sadness and anxiety that I otherwise hadn’t been able to control or manage. But years of battling an eating disorder meant that I didn’t get to experience the things that my peers did. Anorexia also stopped me from exploring my sexuality and gender identity, because for many years, I was simply trying to survive. There wasn’t really much space for really living.

As I did begin to recover and was able to feel and experience emotions again, I found myself battling feelings and emotions around my sexuality. I felt quite panicked and uncertain, and I didn’t know who or where to turn to. When I did realise that I was part of the LGBTQIA+ community, I started to feel that I was somehow less worthy of love than others. I often though that if people knew the real me, the queer me, they would no longer love me. This led to a deep-rooted feeling of unworthiness and low self-esteem.

But slowly, after confiding in some people who I trusted and who treated me with respect and dignity, I began to start accepting who and how I was. I no longer tried to fight away my feelings, but accepted them. And this has led to a much more permanent feeling of peace and contentment. Not everyone agrees with the way I am, but hiding who I am to please others just didn’t work. I have found that for me, labels aren’t particularly helpful, and I’d rather use a more generic term such as ‘queer’ to describe my sexuality and gender identity. This is a word that has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community, as it was previously used as a slur.

It has now been three years since I realised I was part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and I feel I am now able to celebrate all of me, inclusive of my sexuality and gender identity, and have become much more comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes, celebrations around pride can, for me, be interwoven with feelings of sadness and grief thinking about the years of being closeted and the years of self-hatred. I personally believe it is important to allow ourselves to feel the sadness and grief that can come with being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, because that then allows us to move forward to a place of celebration and acceptance. As well as this, loved ones around me have helped me to know that I am unconditionally loved, and that has allowed me to be a bit kinder and more compassionate towards myself.

For anyone who is currently exploring their sexuality or gender identity, my advice would be to allow yourself to explore the questions that you have and to ride with the feelings and emotions that pop up, rather than trying to supress them. I’ve found that it helps not to have to go on this journey alone, and seeking support from others can be really helpful. If you do find that, for whatever reason, your mental health isn’t where you would like it to be, I also recommend speaking to your GP or someone you trust. Asking for help is daunting, but please know that you don’t have to do it alone.

For anyone who is supporting someone in the LGBTQIA+, the first thing to say is thank you. Thank you for being willing to learn and for being supportive. My advice here would be that it’s really important, in both actions and in words, that your loved one knows they are loved unconditionally, inclusive of their sexuality and gender identity. The best way to support your loved one is by asking them how you can be an ally. Everyone’s experience and needs are different.

Though being LGBTQIA+ and experiencing mental health problems is at times challenging and frustrating, it is possible to lead a life where your mental health struggles no longer dictate or manage your life. It is also possible to come to a place of celebration and acceptance of being LGBTQIA+, and flourishing as the person you truly are.