Coming out, for the lesbian, can be a time of intense stress and anxiety. Once the decision is made and action taken, quality of life seems to increase. Several studies point to higher self esteem, higher levels on happiness scales and greater social support than their heterosexuals report. Making the decision to come out is difficult for some, and for others, not so much. The key seems to be plugging into a supportive community where authenticity is supported and valued.
The more widely a woman disclosed her sexual orientation the less anxiety, more positive affectivity, and greater self-esteem was reported in recent research. Degree of disclosure to family, gay and lesbian friends, straight friends, and co-workers was related to overall level of social support in a recent study, with those who more widely disclosed reporting greater levels of support. Participants who more widely disclosed their sexual orientation were less likely to engage in anonymous socializing, had a larger percentage of lesbian friends, and were more involved in the gay and lesbian community.
A study found lesbians reported equally strong levels of mental health as their heterosexual sisters and higher self-esteem. While it’s not clear why lesbians displayed higher self-esteem, the authors speculate it may be that lesbians are more educated and mobile than their heterosexual sisters. As a consequence, the lesbian sisters may be more likely to join supportive communities that allow them to bolster their self-worth, the authors hypothesize.
Another study reported in the January 2001 American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Vol. 71, No. 1), tested a structural equation model related to “outness” on 2,401 lesbian and bisexual women. In this work, researchers found that the more “out” lesbians and bisexual women were–as measured by self-identification as a gay or lesbian, number of years out and level of involvement in the lesbian or bisexual community–the less psychological distress they reported. These findings held true for a range of racial and ethnic subsamples including African-American, white European, Latina, Asian-American, Native American and Jewish women.The study–conducted by Rothblum, Jessica Morris, PhD, a private practitioner in Northampton, Mass., and Craig R. Waldo, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco Center for AIDS Prevention Studies and AIDS Research Institute–is the largest on lesbian mental health to date and is one of the only to look at the relationship of being out to lesbians’ mental health, Rothblum says.
Getting to “out” can be a time of stress and isolation. Supportive mental health therapy that allows the lesbian to process beforehand what her options are and how coming out will affect her in the long term is healthy and helpful. Such positive findings in research invalidate older assumptions that lesbians and gays experience a higher level of mental health problems than heterosexuals. This research is affirming and encouraging that lesbians who go through the process of coming out authentically can experience a high quality of life, plug into a supportive community and obtain happiness. The findings also support the idea that therapy that facilitates the coming-out process is good for lesbians’ mental health. “Such affirmative psychotherapy, provided during the coming out process, may prevent or buffer against subsequent mental health problems,” the authors write.
Carolyn Tucker LAPC is a psychotherapist and life coach who specializes in the treatment of anxiety in Atlanta or via distance (Skype). For more information see www.carolyntuckertherapist.com.