For bisexual and lesbian women, 21 and 12 per cent have reported experiencing long term mental health problems. That’s compared to 4 per cent of heterosexual women.
Recently a queer friend told me, “When you’re queer it feels like you have to hide yourself, it feels like the world doesn’t accept you, and you don’t belong in it as you are.”
The words sounded all too familiar, being a queer woman who has faced my own mental health challenges. For most of my teenage years I lived with anxiety, depression and brief periods of psychosis. I was in and out of therapy between 16 and 18, and I’ve been in counselling ever since.
The figures are stark: 34 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people under 26 have made at least one suicide attempt in their lives. For bisexual and lesbian women, 21 and 12 per cent have reported experiencing long term mental health problems. That’s compared to 4 per cent of heterosexual women.
It’s little wonder that queer women experience higher rates of mental health issues considering the discrimination we still face in society on a daily basis.
Fifty-five per cent of LGB pupils have experienced direct homophobic bullying in schools. While at college there was one particular boy in my year that sat next to me on the bus, almost every day, so that he could tell me he could “turn a lesbian” and “make me straight”.
It doesn’t just end outside the classroom – one in five employees has experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation. This can be subtle things like hearing colleagues using homophobic slurs like “that’s so gay”. It can also be personal – I have femme friends who have been told “you’re too pretty to be gay” or butch friends who have been asked by bosses to present in a more feminine way.
A whole quarter of LGB people alter their behaviour to hide their sexual orientation to avoid being the victim of a hate crime. I can no longer count on two hands the amount of times I have used the word “partner”, rather than “girlfriend”, to avoid the looks people might give. Many queer couples avoid holding hands with their partners or kissing in public.
As a young queer woman sitting in a waiting room for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) a few years ago, I certainly think it would have made a huge impact in my life if someone had spoken to me about the relationship between queerness and mental health; especially since queer women are more likely to have negative experiences with health professionals.
Thirty-six per cent of LGB women reported that health professionals assumed they were heterosexual. And a quarter of patient-facing health professionals have heard colleagues make negative remarks about lesbian, gay or bisexual people.
I’m the first to praise health care professionals, particularly those in the NHS, but many make the same mistake that most of the population do by assuming that people are straight. This is a mistake we can’t afford to make as it alienates queer patients, and could deter them from accessing health services that they so desperately need.
“I found it quite stressful when having counselling that all of the language was heterocentric and related all of the conversation around my dad passing away to my relationships moving forwards with men and male partners,” a bisexual friend told me. “As someone who has, and does also have relationships with men, it was relevant but I felt it only covered half the story for me. I feel that doctors and psychiatrists really need to start using more accessible language and maybe not being so presumptuous, as it can make people feel uncomfortable.”
Whether this be calling others out on using homophobic slurs, supporting queer friends who are struggling, or campaigning on a national level for better awareness in health services – it’s vital that we talk about queer women’s mental health, especially what we can do to change things.