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May 16, 2016

Bisexual, questioning women at greater risk for depression than gay or straight women: Drexel study

Survey given to young men and women ages 14 to 24 shows variations within the LGBQ community

Young women who are bisexual or question their sexuality are more susceptible to depression than young straight women or lesbians, according to a new study from Drexel University.

While previous studies often showed higher rates of mental health problems in LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning) youth, these studies tended to lump the entire LGBQ community together. Or, they would ignore bisexual and questioning youth altogether.

"I think the failure to include bisexual individuals in research studies reflects a larger culture of bisexual invisibility," research assistant Annie Shearer said to DrexelNow. "And with regard to questioning individuals, I think people assume that is a temporary identity, causing them to be overlooked, too."

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Researchers gave behavioral health questionnaires to more than 2,500 young men and women, ages 14 to 24, during doctor's visits in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  The surveys were designed to flag potential symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, drug/alcohol use or thoughts of suicide.

The health centers had discretion over who they decided to give the screening questionnaires to, which could be one limitation of the study. 

The surveys didn't ask participants whether they were "gay" or "bisexual" using those exact terms, but they did ask them which sex they felt attracted to. Overall, around 2.1 percent of participants said they felt same-sex attraction, 3.9 percent said they felt attracted to both sexes and 1.6 percent were unsure. The rest said they only felt opposite-sex attraction. 

Since the focus of the study was on sexual identity, not gender identity, it did not include data on transgender people.

Bisexual or questioning women had higher scores for depression, anxiety and trauma than heterosexual women. Bisexual women were also more likely than any other group to say that they are currently struggling with thoughts of suicide.

Lesbians were more likely than straight women to say that they had, at one point in their lives, had suicidal thoughts. However, they were not more likely to say that they currently have suicidal thoughts and showed no differences in any other category of mental distress.

The male side of the equation showed a curiously different picture. Gay men did indeed show greater risk for depression, trauma and anxiety, and bisexual men also were at greater risk for depression, trauma and past thoughts of suicide. Surprisingly, however, young men who questioned their sexuality did not show any significant risks for mental distress in the survey.

Researchers weren't sure why being in the "questioning" category appeared to be so much more distressing for young women than for young men.

The study's findings contradict the idea that same-sex attraction is always tied to mental health problems, said Shearer. Instead, the picture is more complex: Homosexual women, for example, score mostly the same as their straight counterparts on measures of mental health, while bisexual women are far worse off.

Shearer theorized that society has become more accepting of young women who are exclusively attracted to other women — while bisexual women don't feel completely accepted in either straight or LGBQ communities.

"Some people still refuse to acknowledge bisexual and other non-binary identities as legitimate, which I think can be very harmful to those who can’t — and shouldn’t have to — identify as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual,” said Shearer.

Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs, speaking to Think Progress, echoed those sentiments when she discussed how she felt marginalized even within the gay community.

"The one place we should feel welcome, safe and at home — isn’t," she said. "You show up in need of support and may find yourself perceived as a disruptor, a complicator of tidy narratives and messaging, and as a threat.”

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