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Op-ed: Michael Sam Helps Therapy Come Out of the Closet

Op-ed: Michael Sam Helps Therapy Come Out of the Closet

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The out football player is leaving the sport, citing mental health concerns. Sam deserves support, not snickers.

When Michael Sam -- the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL -- announced his departure from the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes, citing mental health reasons, there were probably more than a few fans thinking, What's really going on?

Most of us can understand dropping out of a team due to a broken leg, but what does "mental health reasons" actually mean?

When we think about mental health, most of us wrongly conclude it's about mental illness, not health. It's an unfortunate fallacy; to many people, seeing a therapist = you're crazy.

As LGBT people, we have a unique experience with mental health care. For example, it has been used against us. For years, just being LGBT meant you were sick. In the early 1970s, LGBT activists successfully challenged the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its liste of mental illnesses and, theoretically, from practice, despite the fact that some therapists claim to do "reparative therapy."

We have gone to therapy in higher numbers than the general public -- not because we were sick but because we actually wanted to get healthy. Last year, the Los Angeles LGBT Center saw more than 1,600 people in our mental health services programs, as part of our ongoing work to build a world where LGBT people thrive as healthy, equal, and complete members of society.

Is there more mental illness occurring among LGBT people than in the general population? That's not an easy question to answer. As early as 1957, Dr. Evelyn Hooker conducted a study that concluded it wasn't true, and yet we know more cases of anxiety and depression have been reported by LGBT people than heterosexuals.

Here's the real deal: We are the only group who grows up with people who are not "like us." If we're lucky, we're accepted by others. If we're not accepted, we're in trouble. The coming-out process is about looking inward, discovering and accepting who we are, and then looking outward to find community. Many of us did and are still doing this in individual and group therapy.

We seek therapy for what our families, friends, communities, and spiritual and religious organizations may not be able to do: provide us with insight, perspective, and understanding. Therapy provides a safe space to grow into the people we are, create the relationships we want and need, find a community, and connect with those we love who are not like us.

Therapy can provide relief from:

* the stigma we grew up with about being "different."

* the depression we experience from learning how to hide.

* the anxiety we may feel about what can happen if we are discovered.

* numbing ourselves with substances to dull the feelings that couldn't/can't be expressed.

* the abuse we experience from others and society.

* living through the AIDS epidemic, in which we witnessed countless deaths of loved ones.

* wondering who will take care of us when we grow old.

We seek therapy not because LGBT people are sick, but because it is how we become healthy, strong and, yes, even powerful.

I wish Michael Sam the very best. His courage to seek mental health is a reminder of just how important it is to take good care of ourselves.

MARSHALL FELDMAN is mental health staff member at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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