Ms Julienne Corboz, Professor Gary Dowsett, Ms Anne Mitchell, Dr Murray Couch, Mr Paul Agius, Professor Marian Pitts
Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University
Project completion year
A growing body of evidence suggests non-heterosexual people experience anxiety and depression at higher rates than their heterosexual peers and are at greater risk of suicide and self-harm. Yet there is little recognition of the implications of this for policy and practice.
This research project undertook a systematic, targeted, international literature review of the evidence base on depression and related issues among non-heterosexual people, published between 2000 and 2008, and also analysed existing data from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS). The research explored rates of depressive symptoms and clinical depression in non-heterosexual people using the following categories: (1) young people, (2) lesbian and other homosexually active women, (3) gay and other homosexually active men, (4) bisexual people and (5) general gay/lesbian/bisexual (GLB) populations.
A large majority of non-heterosexual people do not have depression or any other mental illness; however, the literature points towards strong trends for higher rates of depression, more depressive symptoms, and poorer mental health outcomes than heterosexual people.
A review of the literature produced the following key findings:
- Same-sex-attracted young people have a higher prevalence of depressive symptoms than their heterosexual counterparts.
- Lesbian and other homosexually active women consistently show higher rates of depression. This is particularly true for older and younger lesbian women, who show higher rates of depression than those who are middle-aged.
- Studies of gay and other homosexually active men show a trend towards higher rates of depression. This trend is stronger for 12-month prevalence rates than it is for lifetime rates. Younger gay and homosexually active men appear to be at higher risk of a 12-month prevalence of depression than their older counterparts.
- Bisexual people are not well studied, with research often categorising bisexual people into gay, lesbian or same-sex-attracted categories. The studies that did explore bisexual people separately from homosexual people consistently showed that bisexual people have higher rates of depression or depressive symptoms than heterosexual people, and possibly a similar or higher risk of depression than homosexual people.
Scientific literature detailing risk and protective factors for depression in the gay/lesbian, same-sex-attracted and other-sex-attracted populations indicates variation between groups. Nevertheless, general protective factors include:
- being in a relationship
- living in a metropolitan area
- having social support from peers, family and friends
- feeling like one belongs to a community.
The literature also points to alarming rates of abuse and victimisation of young non-heterosexual people and further, significantly higher rates of suicidal behaviour when compared with heterosexual young people. Curiously, there were no social intervention studies that targeted social processes such as victimisation, homophobia and discrimination.
Heterosexism refers to bias and discrimination in favour of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. A consistent theme is the effect of heterosexism and homophobia on the mental health of non-heterosexual people. In many ways, the research points to a burden of poor mental health that may well be entirely preventable.
Implications for policy, practice and further research
In addressing depression for non-heterosexual people, the most effective response will be to institute measures to combat homophobia and discrimination in the general community and address many of the documented differences. Psychosocial interventions for non-heterosexual people that draw from cognitive behavioural therapy models or increase social support may be effective in reducing depressive symptoms.
Feeling queer and blue (full report) Feeling queer and blue (executive summary)