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Gay Belfast councillor reveals how struggle to accept her own sexuality, and her father's, led to suicide attempts

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston: 'My dad was gay and that broke mum's heart... I self-harmed rather than say I was gay too'

By Sara Neill

Published 03/06/2015

Belfast City councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston
Belfast City councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston

A gay Belfast councillor has revealed how a struggle to accept her own sexuality, and her father's, led to a battle with self-harm and suicide attempts.

Too scared to tell her mum and friends about how she felt, Julie-Anne Corr Johnston started self-harming in 2001, and two years later made her first attempt to take her own life.

She explained: "I cut the top of my arms, and continued to self-harm for two years. But it became evident that when the blood washed away and the wounds started to heal, my problems had grown.

"It was a short-term release, and life was unbearable."

Julie-Anne (27) believes her problems began when she discovered her parents had separated because her father is gay.

"I remember Googling what gay meant, and the screen filled with horrible images. Everything I looked at was condemnation," she said.

"In my mind, I'd also diagnosed the disease that I had and that brought a sense of embarrassment, because that disease had broken my mum's heart, and ripped my family apart. I couldn't hurt mum like he did by coming out."

Julie-Anne's temporary relief through self-harm turned to fear when, aged 14, a friend discovered her scars.

"She threatened to tell my mum, but I told her I wasn't doing it anymore. I lied about it, and asked her to give me some time to clean my act up, that it was embarrassing. I blackmailed her into keeping quiet."

Aged just 15, Julie-Anne reached breaking point in 2003, when she felt she could no longer cope.

She said: "I felt backed into a corner.

"Looking back, it's easy for me to say I didn't want to die, but at that time I felt it was the only option to get away from my problems without hurting mum.

"So I took a handful of my granny's pills and ended up in hospital.

"I remember seeing the pain and hurt and fear in my mum's face when I was in A&E afterwards. That's exactly how I was feeling inside, and I felt comforted by that."

Julie-Anne had a psychiatric assessment before being discharged, and began counselling with the South Eastern Trust. Because Julie-Anne was a minor at the time, her mum was present during the sessions, which meant even in front of a therapist, Julie-Anne could not open up about her sexuality.

"I was squealing inside that I wanted to speak to someone, but I just couldn't," she said.

"For the first few months I was lying about my problems. But when it was just the two of us in the sessions, I eventually came out to my therapist."

In that time, Julie-Anne had made several other attempts to take her own life, and continued to self-harm. She believes her counsellor helped save her life.

"She helped me come to terms with dad's sexuality, and eventually my own. She made me feel a million dollars, that I could cope with anything. I made the decision at that point that I didn't need the medication," she explained.

Julie-Anne still faced having to explain to her mum that she was gay - just like her father, whose sexuality had broken up their family.

She said: "I was haunted by mum's face, and it made me feel extremely guilty that she knew her daughter was having mental health issues but didn't know why. I was making a huge transition in my life, the shackles had been taken off, but my mum had no idea who I was."

Despite feeling stronger, the councillor tried to escape her problems by getting out of Belfast.

She said: "I bought a bus ticket to Dublin after reading about the buzzing gay nightclub scene there. I thought I could collect glasses and get support from the LGBTQ organisations.

"But I sat on the bronze statue outside the Europa, cried my eyes out, and phoned my mum to say I needed to tell her something, but I was terrified.

"We were both crying when she picked me up, and she said: 'It's okay, I know you're gay, why are you hiding it?'

"A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, everything seemed to fit into place."

In 2003, the year Corr Johnston tried to take her own life, 144 people died by suicide. A decade later, that figure had more than doubled, according to Nisra figures.

Julie-Anne has called for voluntary agencies and health trusts to work together to improve the mental health of people in Belfast.

And she wants to use her experiences to ensure others in need get help.

She said: "I'm a walking example that you can overcome and control mental health issues."

If you are affected by the issues in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline (080 8808 8000)

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