Bisexual Women More Frequently Troubled by Mental Health Issues
Researchers recruited 4,769 lesbians and 937 bisexual women to take part in this project. Each study participant was asked to fill out a questionnaire called the Stonewall Women’s Health Survey, detailing their experiences with mental illness, substance abuse and physical injury primarily over the past 12 months.
Attempts were made to ensure that all ages, ethnic identities and economic classes were fairly represented in the survey. In analyzing their results, the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine made adjustments to compensate for any demographic imbalances that still existed. On average, the bisexual women who agreed to become involved in this study were younger than their lesbian counterparts and more likely to be students, members of ethnic minorities, transgender or living in poverty.
In order to assess their recent psychological and emotional states, the Stonewall Women’s Health Survey asked study subjects to answer 12 mental health-related questions. Ten of these questions focused exclusively on past-year experiences, while two requested information about lifetime experiences.
Lesbians indicated slightly higher levels of negative experiences in just two areas: lost confidence and loss of enjoyment or interest in activities that previously brought pleasure. But bisexual women encountered past-year (or lifetime) difficulties more frequently in all of the remaining categories.
In comparison to lesbians, bisexual women were:
- 64 percent more likely to have struggled with an eating disorder at some time in their lives.
- 37 percent more likely to have harmed themselves deliberately within the past year (cutting, burning, swallowing caustic substances, etc.).
- 26 percent more likely to have experienced depression within the past year.
- 20 percent more likely to have experienced anxiety or excessive nervousness within the past year.
- 15 percent more likely to have wished they were dead within the past year.
- 15 percent more likely to have contemplated suicide within the past year.
- 14 percent more likely to have attempted suicide within the past year.
- 13 percent more likely to have felt their lives were not worth living, both in the past year and over the course of their lifetimes.
- 11 percent more likely to have experienced frequent, painful muscle tension within the past year.
Substance abuse was also more common among bisexual women, across the board with every mind-altering drug except for alcohol. The differences were not huge, but they were consistent.
Broken down by age, older bisexual women battled eating disorders more often and had more suicidal thoughts than younger bisexual women, which is a reversal of the pattern seen among lesbian and heterosexual women.
Why Are So Many Bisexual Women Struggling?
Bisexual women tend to keep the truth about their sexual preference hidden from family and friends more frequently than gay men or lesbians. They are also far less likely to attend gay-themed events and presentations, apparently not feeling comfortable in these settings.
Bisexual women are in a sense trapped between two worlds, fearing rejection wherever they turn and carrying the weight of a pair of longstanding societal stigmas (their homosexuality and their bisexuality). To some extent, they may be victims of their own psychological projections, anticipating harsh or mocking responses where none are likely to occur. But their anxieties are at least partly based on reality: prejudice based on sexual preference and identity still exists in abundance, and bisexuals often collide with it in their interactions with mainstream and gay cultures alike.
Hidden truths and hidden emotions can put a terrible strain on the mind and the body. Those who feel they must protect themselves from the judgments of their fellow human beings are denying their natural need for self-expression, and that breeds frustration and feelings of inauthenticity. At the same time, a lack of acceptance in mainstream society, combined with periodic rejection from gays and lesbians, can do much to damage a bisexual woman’s sense of self-esteem.
Interestingly, the mental health gap between bisexual women and lesbians was not found in another large-scale U.K .survey carried out between 2000 and 2002. Searching for explanations, the researchers responsible for the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study point out that in recent years, legislation has removed the sanctions from same-sex marriage, job discrimination based on sexual preference has been outlawed and social acceptance of diversity in sexual preference has grown significantly. They suggest these changes may have helped lesbians and gay men feel more secure about their place in society without having the same effect for bisexuals.
If lesbians have benefited more from these changes than bisexual women, at least from a mental health standpoint, that tells us a lot about the special challenges bisexual women face. Somehow, they must learn to manage their own insecurities as they navigate the churning waters of a confused society that seems split between those who are evolving and those who are still clinging to the bigotries of the past.