Here's how bisexuality comes with its own set of mental health challenges
It took me a long time to realize I’m bisexual. Like, a long time. Until I was 19, I spent hours pining over whether I actually “liked” the guys I thought I did. I knew I had felt the same way about girls who I thought were just, you know, really good friends. All of that wondering put a bit of a dent in my self-perception.
For years, I quite literally only knew half of who I was. In turn, I only had half of the answers I needed to figure out why I was depressed and anxious.
Unfortunately, this is the case for many bisexual people. According to the Society of Prevention Research, “Bisexual individuals are at higher risk for poor mental health outcomes compared to heterosexual as well as lesbian and gay individuals,” largely due to isolation and the lack of self-understanding common among bisexuals. I’ve heard the same things from bisexual, pansexual and genderfluid friends — that they were depressed and anxious because, living at the intersection of the gay / straight or male / female / genderqueer spectrums, they didn’t fully realize themselves for much of their lives.
And, whereas many people may recognize and understand the labels “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender,” they may not have the vocabulary for other experiences, even if those experiences are their own. Mary Andres, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Southern California, said this lack of vocabulary is related to bisexual erasure. The consequences include the “sense of not being seen or felt” by others.
For me, that sense of isolation introduced a host of negative emotional experiences. In middle school, I was terrified everyone would find out I had no idea how crushes were supposed to work; in high school, I constantly reevaluated my friendships because I still hadn’t figured it out.
All of this meant that I rarely identified with my peers. In addition to the usual stresses of high school, I regularly thought I was being a bad or controlling friend, that I was losing my mind or that I was doomed to seriously misunderstand interpersonal relationships for the rest of my life.
Heather Ness, a Middle Georgia State University psychology professor, said this sort of self-doubt and lack of a sense of identity are common among queer people. She asserted that these issues affect people’s quality of life and mental wellness because “people dealing with stressful life circumstances often can handle those situations if they have a strong self-identity and community.” But, without the sense of identity that is often more readily available to straight and cisgender people, queer individuals are more likely to be depressed or anxious.
After I realized I was bisexual, I felt a certain peace with having answers to questions I’d had for years. However, I then struggled to reconcile my identity with my surroundings. Like many queer people, I was closeted.
I was raised by and around religious conservatives, so my revelation was anathema to what I had always assumed about myself and the world. This new uncertainty in turn eroded my mental health and, instead of worrying about who I was, I was terrified of what would happen when other people inevitably found out.
Fortunately, even before coming out I had something many queer people don’t: a supportive community. Citing studies on health disparities between gay and bisexual men, the Centers for Disease Control states that social support is crucial for bisexual people. “Having a supportive group of friends and family members is often key to successfully dealing with the stress of day-to-day life.” For me, MGA’s Honors Program was that support group.
The Program has a significant number of queer members, so even though I worried about how my family and older friends might respond to my identity, I knew there were at least a few people I didn’t have to worry about. During every stage of the coming out process, from painful conversations with conservative friends to awkward family get-togethers, these friends supported me.
When I finally came out to my parents, my community expanded even more as I realized that I could be emotionally safe with both my biological and chosen families.
But many people are not so lucky. I have friends who have been rejected by their biological families for coming out and friends who almost certainly would be if they did come out. I’ve heard horror stories of queer people demeaning each other’s labels and identities for one contrived reason or another — labeling genderqueer people as performative “transtrenders” or using bisexuality to enforce a gender binary and invalidate non-binary people.
This kind of rejection and inability to establish a queer community is another issue. Ness says reliable community is key to developing “resilience, or the ability to overcome and ‘bounce back’ from those stressful life circumstances.” Unfortunately, rejection or the inability to establish a personal community is especially common among bi, pan and genderfluid people, even within LGBT spaces.
Coming out is by no means the perfect solution to anxiety resulting from queerness, but it can be a start. When it’s physically safe to do so, coming out can be the best, most validating experience of a person’s life. It can, like it did for me, help decrease anxiety and depression and make it easier to establish and broaden a community base. 🍒