Coming Out of the Mental Health Closet

A mental health project assistant at LGBT Health and Wellbeing in Edinburgh, discusses a new exhibition looking at LGBT mental ill health

Feature by Katherine McMahon | 02 Oct 2013
  • Coming Out of the Mental Health Closet

This month, the small animal hospital within the Summerhall complex will be home to a collaborative exhibition, as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. It will feature a diverse range of installations and artworks exploring mental health around the festival’s theme, My Reality. LGBT Health and Wellbeing is facilitating a range of pieces which tackle the ways in which LGBT people, in particular, experience mental ill health and the dual discrimination that comes with it.

The reality for many LGBT people is that mental ill health is a big issue. Living in a world which stigmatises and discriminates, it’s no real surprise that our mental wellbeing suffers. Since 2003 studies by Stonewall, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the University of Brighton and the Scottish Transgender Alliance show a sobering picture of just what this means. When compared to the general population, LGBT people are three times more likely to experience mental health problems – around 75% of us. Self-harm is eight times more prevalent among LGB people, rising to 20 times more likely than the general population among transgender people. Suicidal behaviour is three times more prevalent among lesbian, gay and bisexual people and over a third of transgender people have taken steps to end their life.

Because of the stigma around both mental ill health and LGBT identities, this reality is often invisible. Both subjects can be difficult to talk about, and people are often doubly marginalised and silenced by society – from service providers to family and friends. At the same time, it can be a powerful and positive thing to take ownership of the identities and labels that fit. The exhibition will be an opportunity for both artists and audience to tell their own stories and to bear witness to others’, as well as celebrating the artistic achievements of a wide range of people with experience of mental health issues.

Drawing from the experience of dozens of LGBT people, one exhibit explicitly explores the ways in which labels are claimed by individuals – or enforced by others. As Sally, one of the artists involved, puts it, the piece examines; “the effects of sometimes passing comments which have left indelible marks on the recipients’ sense of self.” She says; “It has been a privilege to be involved in collecting other people’s labels. It has illustrated to me how carelessly we pass judgement – and just how dangerously those judgements stick.”

Many artists will be engaging with their own labels in very personal pieces of work. Designed specifically for the strange and atmospheric setting, these promise to be powerful and moving installations.

Sally explains: “I have struggled with mental health problems all my life. I also identify myself as a lesbian. It was a shock for me to realise there was so much stigma around the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Yet it was a diagnosis that made sense to me, a label that fits and I willingly wear; it also gave me access to an effective treatment. My installation tries to give the label of BPD some normalcy and a home. For some of the exhibition I will be present and wearing the label, inviting the audience to engage with the human at the end of it.”

Homosexuality was classified by the World Health Organisation as a mental illness in itself right up until 1992. Transgender people still often have to engage with the pathologising formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria to access the support they need. This, added to the ways in which stigma and discrimination impact the mental wellbeing of LGBT people, means that LGBT history is tangled up with the social history of mental health.

Elspeth, another LGBT artist, is creating an installation based on the letters of patients of what was the Royal Edinburgh Asylum for the Insane, now the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. She says, “Many patients wrote desperate pleas to be released from their confinement, in letters to their friends and families, but the Board of Lunacy decreed that if the letters were critical of the Asylum or showed signs of the patient’s illness, they should not be sent. There are a thousand unsent letters in the archive. Some of them are heartbreaking: in a letter to the Rev Dr Nesbit, Agnes S said ‘Sir, my father called last Wednesday I made an apology, but he says I am fit for nothing.’”

“Reading through the letters and notebooks of patients long gone has been fascinating and deeply touching. These patients’ voices were never heard at the time. Now we are making their presence very visible and audible. Now we are there to listen to them.”

If any of these issues affect you and you’d like some support, you can get find LGBT Health and Wellbeing at or call LGBT Helpline Scotland on 0300 123 2523 (Tues and Wed, 12-9pm).


The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs from 5-20 Oct. Some events are free - others vary in price (see Listings). There will be opportunities to reflect on your own experiences, interactive exhibits and workshops