Ian's Story: 'LGBT+ awareness in schools would have stopped me feeling suicidal at 14'
I was 13 or 14 when I realised I was gay. I was hugely into sport and I simply couldn’t marry the idea of being gay and being sporty. It wasn’t that I was living in a non-inclusive environment – my family and friends were great. It was more of an internal stigma and a feeling about society’s idea of what being gay means.
Nobody really talked openly about sexuality back in the 90s. And my only understanding of being gay was through flamboyant and camp TV personalities such as Julian Clary. My heroes were Alan Shearer and Tim Henman. I couldn’t connect the two and I felt extremely conflicted.
I became incredibly unwell with anxiety and depression, and it wasn’t long before I found myself hiding a knife in my school bag with the sole aim of finding a hiding place in which to take my own life.
Luckily, just as I was psyching myself up to it, one of my teachers found me behind the sports hall and reminded me of the reasons I had to live.
Of course, I still didn’t disclose what was really troubling me. I got support through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and started seeing a counsellor – but I put everything down to the stress of doing my GCSE’s and how my asthma was impacting on my attendance at school. I was in denial.
Fundamentally, my sexuality was driving my mental health problems and suicidal thoughts, and I wish somebody had been able to say to me, it’s OK to be gay.
I find it really hard to understand why anybody would be against schools raising awareness of LGBT issues. It’s a fact of life and talking about it won’t change anybody’s sexuality – that’s quite simply impossible in my view.
As a school pupil I learnt about Henry VIII and Sikhism, but I didn’t grow up thinking, OK, now I want to be Henry VIII or now I want to be a Sikh. Understanding history and religion, however, helps me to make sense of the world around me – why shouldn’t it be the same when it comes to LGBT matters?
I was recently at an event with my husband and our niece. She said: ‘Uncle Steve, are you and Uncle Ian married like mummy and daddy?’
Of course we told her the truth and her reaction was naturally accepting.
In raising awareness from a young age all we are doing is encouraging understanding and acceptance. Beyond that, there will be no dramatic shift in a child’s personality. They’ll most likely just accept it and move on to the next topic of conversation.
Even though stigma around sexuality and mental health has improved dramatically since the 90s when I was struggling, there are still too many examples of problems within educational settings. It was only a couple of years ago I sat in to observe a sex education class, and the teacher opened the class by stating that ‘marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman’.
Imagine the impact this could have on a young person who has just realised they are gay, but now feels as though they can’t follow their dream of getting married and settling down?
As I know only too well, a lack of open conversations about sexuality can cause severe emotional and mental distress. Add to that the problems we then face with mental health stigma – particularly among men – and you have a recipe for crisis point and possibly even suicide.
This is why I’m so passionate about managing the ‘United with Pride’ community – Newcastle United’s LGBTQ fans’ group. It’s a safe space where Newcastle United fans can connect and share their experiences openly.
As a keen sports fan, coach and player, I can see the need for more conversations about LGBT and mental health matters to be started among sports communities. And again, this is Newcastle United Foundation launched its #BeAGameChanger campaign – to get more men to speak openly about mental health, as suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
Football is a great way to unite people in these conversations. All fans have the love of the beautiful game in common, as well as strong support for their team. If we can support the wider fan community like we support our team, we can save lives.
This is why I believe that it is crucial to raise awareness of both mental health and LGBT issues during school lessons for all children. Excluding children from these conversations is dangerous for all involved.
For more information on how to access mental health support for you or a loved, visit our designated page.
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