Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bisexual women in the UK have worse mental health than lesbians

Bugged by “friends” who say that it is so much easier to be bi than lesbian? Well point them in the direction of this new research, which comes from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Sexual health researchers from LSHTM analysed the responses to the 2007 Stonewall UK Women's Health Survey from 5,706 bisexual and lesbian women. Respondents were all living in the UK and aged 14 or over. Of these, 937 were bi-identified.

The research showed that bi women were far more likely to experience poor mental health than lesbians. Lesbians, in turn, have worse mental health than do heterosexual women.

This quoted information is straight from the press release.

Bisexual women are more likely to experience poor mental health and mental distress than lesbians, according to new research published in the Journal of Public Health.

Bisexual women were 64% more likely to report an eating problem and 37% more likely to have deliberately self-harmed than lesbians. They were also 26% more likely to have felt depressed and 20% more likely to have suffered from anxiety in the previous year than lesbians.

The study found bisexual women were less likely to be ‘out’ to friends, family and work colleagues and also less likely to be in a relationship. According to the results, bisexual women were less likely to experience sexuality-related discrimination from work, healthcare services, education and family than lesbians, but more likely to experience discrimination from friends.

Study senior author Dr Ford Hickson, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Bisexual people are at particular risk of invisibility and marginalisation from both gay/lesbian communities and mainstream society. Although bisexual women in our study reported experiencing less sexuality-based discrimination than lesbians, this did not benefit their mental health. Mental health services should be aware of both the differences and the similarities in bisexual and lesbian women's mental health care needs, and tailor the services they provide accordingly.”

The authors also found that older bisexual women had more suicidal thoughts than younger bisexual women.

I strongly recommend reading this paper in its entirety – there is some academic jargon and statistics but it is comparatively easy to read; the information in it is both saddening and important.

A few questions and speculations

The authors report that things have changed since a previous report of 2000-2002, when bi women were not reported as having a greater prevalence of psychological distress than were lesbians. They suggest that greater public awareness and acceptance, and legal changes, have meant that lesbian relationships are more tolerated. These changes have not had the same beneficial impact on bi women.

But what has changed since 2007, when this research was carried out? Social media, which was in its infancy in 2007, has – I think – had a definite impact on the invisibility and erasure that is known to have a negative impact on bi people. Social media has the potential to connect people to the great benefit of all. It can also enable bullying and can cause even worse stress to people who are feeling vulnerable.

These are “bi-identified” women. What about women who are sexually/emotionally bi but for whom identity as such is not important. Or, indeed, who identify as pansexual or queer?

To what extent and in which ways would these findings be similar for bi/gay men?

In what ways do other oppressions – race and class, for instance – have an impact on bi women’s “mental distress”? Or the intersection of trans* and bi identities.

To what extent and in which ways would these findings be similar for bi/gay men?

I’d love to know how individuals feel about these issues in their own lives.

Bisexuality, age and mental health

So does this differ with age or generation – and if so, how and why? The authors do say that “older bisexual women had more suicidal thoughts than younger bisexual women” which is a sorry situation indeed. In the UK population at large, incidences of suicidal thoughts go down with age.

Why might this be?

Invisibility and marginalisation is surely at least part of it. If this increased mental distress is true for bi women as a whole, how much more true is this for older bi women. For sexual minority people in general, not being out, being invisible, hiding important parts of yourself – these are all known to have a negative impact on mental health.

Study lead author Lisa Colledge quite rightly says: “Homophobic prejudice is now widely and rightly condemned; specific stigma around bisexuality needs to be similarly confronted.”

Biphobia still clearly exists from both mainstream and queer communities, still has an impact on how women see themselves.

As the report says, “If felt and internalized stigma were commoner among bisexual than lesbian respondents, this may help explain the bisexuals’ greater mental health distress.”

Older bi people/women – as this blog as argued often – continue to be as invisible as they were 20 years ago. Bi people/women are far less visible than younger bi women, or younger bi people as a whole. When they are visible, they are viewed with contempt or bafflement. When they are invisible, it is because they don’t exist. A truly vicious circle, that surely helps no one.

I also think it is likely that growing up at a time when bisexuality was even more unacceptable, when there was even less of a bi community, and even less visibility, may have a profound and long-lasting psychological impact on some women. For those who came out later in life, they may find dating and finding new friends and partners who accept them more difficult than younger women. Those are just a few reasons, most of which the report recognises.

But this is NOT inevitable.

A few years ago, I wrote a draft post for this site on “How to be a happy bisexual” which I never finished because I was concerned it was too light, too perky. I think I will revisit it.

To read the original research, click here.