Young and bisexual? Study highlights need for more support
by Margaret Robinson, Mi’kmaq feminist scholar working on LGBTQ issues in health
When it comes to LGBTQ health issues, bisexual people are frequently overlooked. Too often, bisexuality is dismissed as a phase or trend, and programs designed for gay, lesbian, or trans youth may not provide the support and mentorship that bisexual youth need.
A study by the CAMH Re:searching for LGBTQ Health team raises important questions about how we understand and support bisexual youth.
Our team surveyed 405 bisexual-identified people across Ontario, and compared the data about young people (between age 16 and 24) with adults (25 and older).
Young people in our study had significantly higher depression scores compared to adults.
- 41.1% of bi youth indicated they were experiencing moderate to severe depression – compared with 30.7% of bisexuals over the age of 24
Bisexual youth were also significantly more likely to consider suicide.
- 29.7% of bi youth considered suicide in the last year – compared to 15.2% (over age 24)
- 5.1% of bi youth attempted suicide in the last year – compared to 1.8%
Young people also scored higher on measures of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
- 26.1% of youth had a score suggestive of a PTSD disorder, compared with 15.5% of older bisexuals
When it came to anxiety or substance abuse, we didn’t find any significant differences between bisexuals under age 25 and those age 25 and older. However:
- 38.5% of bi youth report levels of anxiety that impact their ability to function
- 32.6% of bi youth reported a drinking problem
- 18.6% of bi youth said they used one drug in the last year (generally cannabis)
- 24.1% said they used more than one drug in the past year (usually cannabis and something else)
Unexpectedly, smoking was low, with only 8.2% of youth reporting daily smoking.
The Risk & Resilience Survey of Bisexual Mental Health used social networks to recruit participants – and with the data collected, the research team was able to accurately estimate the prevalence of certain health characteristics among socially networked bisexuals in Ontario.
The burden of mental health and substance use among bisexuals in Ontario is high relative to studies examining the general population.
A large Canadian study found that 8.4% of participants had moderate to severe depression, compared to our figure of 41.1%.
Our rates for past-year suicide ideation (29.7%) and attempt (5.1%) are higher than those in a recent US study, in which 3.6% of youth age 13 to 18 reported thoughts of comitting suicide in the last year, and 1.9% reported a suicide attempt in the past year.
A study using the same data showed lifetime suicidality was 45.4% for bisexual women and 9.6% for straight women.
The high suicidality rates found in our study may also reflect a trend among youth.
A study in British Columbia (pdf) found that between 1992 and 2003, thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts remained stable for straight high school students, and decreased dramatically for gay students, but increased for lesbians and bisexual teens.
We don’t know if this trend exists for bisexuals beyond adolescence, or if it has continued in the last decade.
Not easy being bi
The bisexual population’s high rates of depression, suicide, anxiety, and substance use may be due to a combination of high social stress and low social support.
As bisexual people, we experience a double stress burden: We get homophobia from the straight world, and we get biphobia from both the straight world and gay and lesbian communities.
Biphobia, the fear and hatred of bisexuals takes a number of forms, but one of the most common is the denial that bisexuality is an authentic sexuality.
Support systems designed for gay and lesbian youth may not be equipped to adequately support bisexual youth.
A recent review of research (pdf) shows that when bi youth come out they are often met with disbelief, pressured to identify as straight, gay, or lesbian, and are poorly supported.
When I came out as bisexual at 17, over 20 years ago, gay and lesbian peers told me bisexuality wasn’t a real identity, and urged me to “pick a side.”
When I sought support groups, the facilitators didn’t undersatnd bisexuality and allowed biphobia to go unchallenged.
It was only in my late 20s, when I found bisexual-specific groups such as The Toronto Bisexual Network, and Bisexual Women of Toronto that I found a space where I didn’t have to explain and defend myself all the time.
Many Ontario school settings have established “gay/straight alliances” to support sexual minority students and policies designed to reduce bullying.
Protective school climates have been found to reduce suicide risk. However, gay/straight alliances may not actively address the needs of bisexual youth (their name certainly doesn’t help with our visibility), and may even be biphobic.
Programs designed to provide access to bisexual-specific role models, support, and information offer promise, and should be evaluated to see if they can reduce the rates of suicidality reported in this and other studies.
Two such programs are hosted by Toronto’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY), which is designed to improve the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and transgendered youth:
- Fluid is an 8-week group that explores themes around bisexuality and sexual fluidity through group discussions, art, games and fun. Fluid runs twice a year.
- The B Side is a free 10-week group for people of all ages who are exploring their attraction to more than one gender, or are struggling with what their bisexuality means to them and their lives. To register call 416-324-4100, ext. 5096 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Groups such as these have the potential to help bisexual youth make the transition into bisexual adulthood safer and healthier.