I was 19 when I met my wife, but it took another decade before I got comfortable with words like "lesbian" and "bisexual."

Since then, I've openly shared my life and relationship — in essays for publications like Cosmopolitan and on Bravo television.


Then a funny thing happened this year: Women began coming out to me.

Women reached out to me through various forms of social media.

When we think about coming out, we usually think of that awkward adolescent time of emerging sexuality. But for older women, coming out can be a whole other experience — an especially challenging one that creates a delicate new identity.

Take Sarah, who came out at 28, after nine years with a man to whom she was also engaged.

In an email to me, she explained, "I had to confront a lot of internalized homophobia in myself, even in subconscious ways like being ashamed to appear gay or let people find out that I was."

Sarah (right) and her partner. Photo courtesy of the couple.

Then, there was the email from "Jen" (not her real name) — over 1,000 words long — sent from a fake account.

She was 41 when she reached out to me. "How did you reconcile with the fact that you'd be with a woman the rest of your life?" she asked. Jen told me she made a female friend at work in 2007. The woman had a husband and Jen had a boyfriend. They became inseparable. They've kept this secret for eight years, and Jen confesses of her girlfriend, "One of her sons told her he'd never talk to her again if he found out something was going on with us." The e-mail closed with: "I've changed our names to protect our silly secrets."

The secrets she shared didn't feel silly. They were about love — both romantic and familial — and lies.

They were about unexpectedly falling in love with another woman and the ways in which it could change both of their lives at a point when they thought they were already settled in their identities. They were about guilt and fear and doubt.

Sure, we all expect to change some as we grow older, but we expect certain things — seemingly core parts of our identity we take for granted — to stay the same.

Says Jen, "For 30+ years I envisioned myself with a husband, not a wife."

Dr. Darcy Sterling. Photo by Omar Guerra, used with permission.

Dr. Darcy Sterling, whose practice Alternatives Counseling specializes in the LGBT community, knows this struggle firsthand. "As someone who came out later in life, I too wanted certainty around my orientation." She explains, "I didn't dislike sex with men but I preferred it with women." Ultimately she made peace with her fluid sexuality and chose to identify as a lesbian. "I find it easier to wrap my complicated head around than making overarching declarations about my orientation, past, present or future," she says.

Kathy Prezbinkowski, Ph.D., M.S.N., and leader of the Washington-based support group Coming Out Women, points out that older women who come out often have to confront a lot of ingrained expectations. The group aims to create a safe space for women to listen and share stories and strives to help them break out of the "mold to fit in the heterosexual box." Women in the group range in age from mid-30s to their mid-70s, and many have already started families. Prezbinkowski says:

"More than 50% of the 2000+ women at our group had been married to men — some still in marriages — and had children, and even grandchildren. The vast majority knew that they had attractions to women, but followed the societal norm."

Admitting their feelings to strangers is one thing, but opening up to loved ones remains a daunting conversation.

"I practiced saying the word 'gay' to my infant," Natalie, 34, told me by email. She had both a husband and a newborn before she identified as a lesbian.

Natalie (right) and her wife Carrie. Photo courtesy of the couple.

Christi, a 38-year-old mom twice married to men, admits that telling her kids wasn't easy. In an email, she said she was worried about hurting her relationship with her daughter: "There is a lot of fear and guilt involved in coming to terms with your own sexuality and many more layers of it when it comes to telling other people."

But there are also some benefits to coming out when you're older and wiser. As Christi put it:

"I didn't understand what I was feeling when I was younger. For me, coming out at 35 was a million times easier than it might have been in my teens or 20s. By 35 I had a lot of life experience, more confidence, and I cared less what other people think."

Coming to terms with a new identity is hugely challenging, but for many of these women, it marked the beginning of their path to real happiness.

Not long after our initial correspondence, Jen wrote to me again, sharing her real name and information. She said that talking to me about her identity helped her to see her life in a new light. "I feel forever indebted to you," she wrote. The reason our conversation changed Jen's life? I listened with openness and compassion. That's it.

She shared another secret: She proposed. The couple is not fully out to their families yet, but they're working on it.

Jen and her fiancee with their new rings. Photo courtesy of the couple.

Meanwhile, Christi and her wife are expecting a baby this winter, and Sarah and her wife were married earlier this spring.

Sarah says this is not how she pictured her adult life when she was little, "but I'm ever so glad that I'm here."

Coming Out Women's mission statement asserts that all women deserve empowerment, authenticity, and wholeness. That doesn't begin with having all the answers. It can begin simply with finding someone who will listen. We are all empowered when we project the compassion we seek in others.

"When women first arrive at group," says Prezbinkowski of those who gather at Coming Out Women, "perhaps after numerous attempts, they know they are 'coming home.'"

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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