Bisexuality and mental health

Did you know? Over 40% of bisexual people have considered suicide

Graphic by Shiri Eisner (blog, tumblr).

This was a difficult post to write. The subject matter and my real life circumstances were just a little too closely matched for comfort!

I submitted this to the editors at uni(di)versity a full week late, because I was dealing with significant anxiety and the brain fog and unproductivity that often accompany an extended period of acute, generalized anxiety for me. Every time this happens, despite my personal politics of openness about neurodivergence and accepting help when I need it, I feel ashamed and weak and vulnerable. When my neurodivergences impact my ability to be productive, I feel like I’ve failed. I haven’t been strong enough to keep myself fully functional, I haven’t been disciplined enough to produce work despite the anxiety, and I haven’t been self-aware enough to prevent the anxiety from spiraling out of control.

This is relevant because I know how frustrating it is to read posts full of information about how to make things better when you are stuck in the quicksand of things not getting better. As much as this post is meant to be an encouragement for all of us to be aware of the issues around mental health (particularly as they differentially impact members of the bisexual, pansexual, fluid, and otherwise non-monosexual community), I also want to acknowledge that you might read this and feel completely discouraged at the end because you can’t do anything about the bad situation, because you are experiencing your own convergence of circumstance and neurodivergence, or because you’re barely keeping your head above water. If that’s the case, I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not a freak, you are not weak, and you are not broken.

I suspect that many readers of this blog experience some form of mental health concern. A blog devoted to issues of diversity in post-secondary institutions is likely, I suspect, to have a readership of immigrant, queer, racialized, disabled, fat, non-binary and otherwise non-normative folks, and we are a vulnerable bunch. (As an example, The Straight recently ran a piece focusing on the vicious circle of depression that many immigrants experience.)

It can be particularly difficult to seek help or accommodations as a member of a marginalized group in a post-secondary setting. Seeking help requires outing ourselves as members of yet another marginalized group – the neurodivergent, often referred to as the “mentally ill” or those “having mental health issues.”

In academia, especially, this can be extremely challenging. We’re academics, right? We’re here to use our minds. And when our minds seem to be functioning in ways that society has declared are not normal, or when our minds stop functioning in the way we know they should (like when I slide into a depression, or a long period of anxiety), it seems to call our whole lives into question.

We may already be facing challenges in the classroom from teachers and colleagues who perceive us as less intelligent or less capable because of our identities. Asking for accommodations, or even talking openly about our neurodivergences, can be extremely challenging.

And yet, talking about mental health – being open with our own struggles and looking for help when we need it – is one of the best ways to improve the situation. (Though I say this, and say it with conviction, I also want to be clear that if you cannot or do not want to talk about your mental health, there is nothing wrong with that. It is not your job to fix the context you’re in!)

Mental health has been a hot topic in many places around the internet lately. The Frogman wrote an excellent piece on depression, focusing on teens and how they can access resources. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half wrote the long-awaited “Depression Part Two,” which sparked conversations all over the internet. When I read Part Two, I felt sick – it hit far too close to home. The Belle Jar wrote another hit-me-in-the-gut piece about self-loathing that touched on some really important (and rarely talked about) pieces of the mental health puzzle for a lot of people, such as the intense feelings of shame and anxiety that can come with neurodivergence.

The piece that sparked the idea for this post was Miri at Brute Reason, who recently wrote about “small things almost anyone can do to help build a community where mental illness is taken seriously and where mental health is valued.”*

As a mental health advocate, and a person with an anxiety disorder and a history of depression that includes self-harm and suicidality, I am very interested in building these kinds of communities for myself, and for the people around me. I am also a bisexual activist, and am deeply aware that the bisexual community is at a disproportionately high risk of mental health concerns. More than 40 per cent of bisexual individuals report having considered suicide (in contrast to 8.5 per cent of straight people and 27 per cent of gay people).

Some of the societal factors that increase our vulnerability can be exacerbated in post-secondary situations, where active “Gay-Straight Alliances” do great work but linguistically exclude us, and where classroom discussions often ignore or overlook liminal identities in discussions of orientation. It is rare to find a course devoted to bisexual (or other non-monosexual) orientations, though I’ve seen multiple courses on lesbian literature, gay literature, and gay and lesbian film come through my student centre. These courses are great, and I’d like to see more of them! But I’d also like to see something like Margaret Robinson’s Intro to Bisexual Theory taught more often and in more institutions.

Although each of Miri’s five points about valuing mental health ring true for me, the differential risk faced by the bisexual community means that I want to focus on her final point:

 5. Understand how social structures – culture, laws, business, politics, the media, etc. – influence mental health.

If you learned what you know about mental health through psychology classes, your understanding of it is probably very individualistic: poor mental health is caused by a malfunctioning brain, or at most by a difficult childhood or poor coping skills. However, the larger society we live in affects who has mental health problems, who gets treatment, what kind of treatment they get, and how they are treated by others. Learn about the barriers certain groups – the poor, people of color, etc. – face in getting treatment. Learn about how certain groups – women, queer people, etc. – have been mistreated by the mental healthcare system. Find out what laws are being passed concerning mental healthcare, both in your state and in the federal government. Learn how insurance companies influence what kind of treatment people are able to get (medication vs. talk therapy, for instance) and what sorts of problems you must typically have in order for insurance to cover your treatment (diagnosable DSM disorders, usually). Pay attention to how mental illness is portrayed in the media – which problems are considered legitimate, which are made fun of, which get no mention at all.

It’s tempting to view mental health as an individual trait, and mental illness as an individual problem. But in order to help build a community in which mental health matters, you have to learn to think about it structurally. That’s the only way to really understand why things are the way they are and how to make them change.

One structural element that we need to start thinking seriously about is how bisexual erasure, invisibility, and monosexism impact the bisexual and non-monosexual communities. The bisexual community is already at increased risk of mental health issues, including the aforementioned disproportionately high risk of suicidality.

Shiri Eisner shared an excerpt from her book “Bi: Notes For A Bisexual Revolution” on her blog. This section is an analysis of the 2011 Bisexuality Invisibility Report and addresses, among other things, the differential risk of mental health concerns (including suicidality) for the bisexual and otherwise non-monosexual community. Her analysis provides an accessible look at a complex and often-overlooked series of issues. Regarding mental health she notes that:

whereas “[i]n nonurban areas, lesbians and bisexual women experience similar levels of frequent mental distress, the odds of frequent mental distress decrease significantly for lesbians in urban areas, while [becoming] nearly double for bisexual women” (emphasis in original). The researchers theorize that the reason for this is that gay and lesbian communities are more well-organized in urban areas, contributing to the isolation of bisexual people who experience rejection while seeking support, once outside of their home communities.

This is critical in understanding the situation faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and other non-monosexual individuals in post-secondary settings. Feelings of isolation and rejection can exacerbate emotional and mental distress, and it can be particularly challenging to be surrounded by groups and events that do not seem to have a space for you.

Classmates of mine have reported skepticism from university-employed psychologists and doctors regarding their sexual orientation (both as non-monosexual individuals and a polyamorous individuals – another under-supported identity group). One of my friends was recently asked by a doctor whether he has “homosexual or heterosexual sex” – in order to be recognized as a non-monosexual queer, he had to insert himself into that binary forcibly, and if he had been low on resources or feeling vulnerable, he may not have been able to take that risk.

These moments of erasure can have serious side-effects for individuals who then remain unseen and unrecognized as non-monosexual, and don’t receive the information and support that they need.

Eisner’s analysis offers further information that should make us, as academics, sit up and take notice. Not only are bisexual individuals at increased risk of mental health concerns across the board, we are also likely to have lower levels of education, and bisexual support services are significantly underfunded. In fact, Eisner notes that:

“in years 2008 and 2009, out of over 200 million dollars given by US foundations to LGBT organizations as grants, not a single dollar in all the country went towards funding bisexual-specific organizations or projects.” This “LGBT” money did not “trickle down” to bisexuals, either: a survey conducted by the editors of the report, found that of the LGBT organizations in San Francisco willing to reply to a survey about bisexuality, most do not offer content that is targeted specifically towards bisexuals.

This is reinforced by another finding: whereas bisexual people make up the single largest group among LGBT’s, “only 3-20% of the people accessing LGBT-focused services are bisexual.”**

I believe that the systemic oppression faced by bisexual, pansexual, fluid and otherwise non-monosexual individuals is something that can be changed. We can encourage bisexual youth in high school so that they feel confident entering post-secondary, and we can support them once they get here. We can become aware of (and advocate for) the support groups that do exist in our communities. In Calgary, Possibilities hosts a monthly discussion group, a monthly coffeeshop social night, and a monthly Community Cafè (in collaboration with Calgary Outlink) and at the University of Calgary, the Q Centre is explicitly bi-friendly. PFLAG Canada offers a list of resources for bisexual individuals. Acknowledging our existence in your everyday language, and welcoming our inclusion in your spaces and events goes a long way to changing those feelings of isolation and rejection that Eisner cites.

It’s always difficult to make space. The things that are supposed to be secrets – unacceptable or incomprehensible identities, circumstances or struggles – are much easier to keep quiet about than to speak openly. But if you have the time, and the privilege, and the resources to be vocal – consider doing it. You could make a huge difference in your own or somebody else’s life.

And even if you will never be vocal, be informed. For example, discussions of “bisexual privilege” that fail to recognize the incredible cost of “passing” as straight are damaging and contribute to the monosexist dominant culture – know it, so that you don’t contribute to it!

Wrapping up this post, I find myself struggling with the strong desire to write “5 ways to make things better for the neurodivergent bisexuals around you!” I want to end on a positive note and provide a road map to a better place. I think that those kinds of didactic posts, while useful, can also be frustrating to read and limiting.

Instead, I will just admit that I have a pretty big horse in this race. I want things to change, but I don’t actually have the solutions. I am one of the neurodivergent bisexuals that Eisner writes about. Miri offers a good starting point for changing the culture around mental health, but I’d love to hear your suggestions. How do you think bisexual folks find the post-secondary experience where you are? How about the culture at your post-sec regarding mental health? What would you like to see change? How do you think we can make that change happen? What have your own experiences of neurodivergence and/or bisexuality been?

*Although I think that the language of “mental illness” can be problematic, and is often used to inaccurately frame neurodivergence as uniformly “ill” (for example, many people with ADHD, a learning disability, or an Autism spectrum “disorder” may not view themselves as disordered or ill), I do agree with Miri’s call for communities with space for neurodivergence and mental health issues of all flavours, from the unusual but delightful (such as a neurodivergent individual who does not experience their neurodivergence as a problem) to the bitter and harmful (neurodivergences that are experienced as illness or disorderings, which is how I would categorize my own depressive tendencies when I become self-harming or suicidal).

**Edited to more accurately attribute this quote.

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3 thoughts on “Bisexuality and mental health

  1. bidyke says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post! This is so important to write, speak and learn more about. I personally don’t know any bi* person in my close environment who has *not* had a history (or a current situation) of mental health issues (myself included). I really think this is one of the most important areas for bi activism and writing right now, so thank you for helping to further that. Also thank you for being hopeful about it. It’s very easy to look at all this hugeness and lose sight of our power as a community. It’s exciting and inspiring to see someone who both understands the problem and remembers that we have the power to change it.

    We’ve recently started a discussion about this topic on the bisexual tumblr blogosphere (what we call Bi Tumblr). If you’re on tumblr, could I ask that you put this up there? I’d like to reblog this post, I think it would contribute a lot to our discussion, and I’d love to see you participate!

    Thank you <3
    Shiri

  2. Estraven says:

    The video embedding in this link mentions some things that can be done to improve bisexual mental health:

    http://laurenmichellekinsey.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/understanding-the-health-needs-of-bisexual-people/

  3. E Drennen says:

    Thank you for this! Reading the mental health stuff in the Bi Invisibility Report was like a punch in the gut for me, too. As my wife has said of the increased risk of suicidality for bisexuals, “If they keep telling you you don’t exist, you can eventually begin to believe them.”

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