The verdict has been out for some time: Bi people face more severe health disparities than any other sexual orientation. We experience much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality — even more so than our gay and lesbian peers. We have significantly higher rates of drug use and addiction than the rest of the population. Bi women are nearly twice as likely as straight women to experience assault. Only roughly a quarter of bi individuals are out to most or all the important people in their life, and in the U.S. only 12% of bi men are out publicly.
This is undoubtedly a national health crisis, yet few researchers have actually looked into the concrete reasons behind the health disparities. That's why the recent work of Dr. Ethan Mereish at American University is so necessary. In this month's issue of the journal Prevention Science, Dr. Mereish and his colleagues published a paper titled, Bisexual-Specific Minority Stressors, Psychological Distress, and Suicidality in Bisexual Individuals: the Mediating Role of Loneliness. This study explores potential causes for all the additional psychological stressors that bi folks face.
"The bigger picture here", Dr. Mereish said to me by phone, "Is that these types of stressors are usually studied among LGBTI broadly, but those [studies] haven't looked at the nuances of bi-stigma and biphobia. [In this study,] we specifically looked at stress related to the bisexual identity, not just LGBTI broadly."
His is one of the first studies not to group the B with LGBTI. He specifically recruited bi individuals. He even changed some of the language in the minority stress model to encapsulate the "double discrimination" bi folks receive from both the gay and straight communities alike.
In his study, Dr. Mereish and his colleagues looked to see if feelings of loneliness mediate the negative health outcomes in the bisexual community. His study analyzed the survey results of 503 bisexual-identifying individuals (and in some cases, folks who didn't identify as bi but reported an attraction to more than one gender). Dr. Mereish adapted the minority stress model, a verified model used to evaluate stressors for minority groups, to address the specific forms of discrimination bisexual folks face.
More specifically, Dr. Mereish wanted to explore the relationship between feelings of loneliness and distal/proximal stressors. Distal stressors are defined as external stressful events, like hate crimes and family rejection. Proximal stressors are defined as individuals' internalized stress processes, such as internalizing heterosexist stigma into one's self-concept and concealing one's sexual orientation. He then wanted to see if higher feelings of loneliness along with distal and proximal stressors increase psychological distress and suicidality.
In simpler words, the researchers wanted to see if loneliness, in part due to the specific struggles and discrimination we face as bi individuals, contributes to the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in the bi community.
In short, the answer was a big, resounding "Yes." Loneliness is very connected to all the negative stressors: rejection from both the gay and straight community, people invaliding our experiences, and other forms of biphobia. Loneliness is also connected to closeted folks who don't disclose their bisexuality to others.
So what can we do about this? What can we do to help bi people feel less lonely, depressed, anxious, and suicidal?
There a few steps, Dr. Mereish told me.
The first has to do with bi-specific stigma. We need to have educational programs early on to highlight that bisexuality is a legitimate and stable sexual orientation. This will help debunk bisexual myths and stereotypes. [The second] is bringing more awareness in the media. Bi folks, when in the media, are often depicted in a negative manner. [We need to] make the real bi experience visible in the media. The [third] step, is having more bi-specific inclusive policies. So often, when we look at the "gay" or civil rights movement, it leaves bisexuality invisible in many ways. Take for example, the dialogue surrounding same-sex marriage, where bisexuals weren't quite included. So basically, we need to be inclusive of bisexual folks in all LGBTI policies. This includes discrimination-based policies. Making it clear that discriminating, stigmatizing, or making negative comments about bisexual people specifically is harmful and needs to be targeted. This would help increase acceptance as well as encourage bisexual folks to disclose their identity. We'd feel more comfortable coming out, and this in turn, would create more visibility.
In summary, Dr. Mereish believes that we need to not only target our oppressors (both straight and gay) through education and inclusive policies, but we also need to create spaces that encourage and reward bi disclosure. That would (hopefully) create a positive feedback loop: More bi-visibility means more people come out, creates more bi-visibility, and then even more bi folks come out!
Hopefully, further work will build on this research, not only looking at why bi individuals have higher rates of psychological distress, but also exploring ways to mitigate feelings of loneliness within the larger bi community.