Gay and Bipolar: Sexuality, Mood Disorders and the Ups and Downs of Life

Man lying in hammock with laptopIf you are gay and you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar (often called ‘bipolar disorder’) you’ve probably already been on some kind of medication. A bipolar diagnosis often follows a hospital admission, which can be a scary experience in itself. I’m not going to write about medication or hospitals here, because prescribing meds is not something I do. Instead I’m going to share some of the valuable insights I’ve heard from gay people with bipolar.

Diagnosis and Treatment if you are Gay with Bipolar

But firstly, let’s start with the question of diagnosis. Many gay guys and women worry they might have bipolar. It’s become common for people to research symptoms of mental illness on the Internet and find evidence for self-diagnosis. Keep in mind that Internet research can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: when we think we might have a condition, we are looking for information that proves we do, and we will generally find it unless there is equal or higher level of doubt in our minds.

Changes in mood are part of life and they don’t necessarily mean you have bipolar. However you might still be experiencing severe anxiety or depression. I work with LGBT people who think they might have bipolar or depression as well as those who have been referred to me by their doctors or psychiatrists. And while medication is an accepted part of life for many with bipolar, it’s only part of treatment. Medication on its own doesn’t ‘fix’ bipolar. Doctors are the medication specialists but when it comes to psychology, a mental health practitioner generally has more time and capacity to offer specialist therapy. If you are gay with bipolar (or are the gay partner of someone with bipolar), Medicare rebates are available for up to 10 sessions of psychology per calendar year. I can also refer you to a gay-friendly GPs, so it is possible to have different professionals for the medical and psychological aspects of bipolar.


Bipolar and Homosexuality: Overcoming Judgement and Responding to Gay Discrimination

While there’s no direct connection between bipolar and homosexuality, there are some interesting parallels. People with a diagnosis of bipolar often talk to me about the the way they are affected by judgements (or perceived judgements) and expectations. Sound familiar? This is so often the case for gay and bisexual men and women too. The judgements of heteronormativity are very strong against homosexuality.

And the sense of not fitting in, comparing ourselves to other gay men as well as the practical matters associated with discrimination and abuse against gay people can drive us into depression. If your family are treating you badly or if you are at risk of losing your career because of who you are (or who you love), or you think you might have contracted HIV, for example, it can have a massive impact on your mood. That’s important to remember, because much of the pop psychology and medical model to which we are exposed tends to suggest depression is just an endogenous condition (i.e. it implies depression just comes from within us rather than having external triggers). So people who have been diagnosed with bipolar, and particularly gay men, start to think there is something wrong with them or with their bodies.

Let’s not forget that homosexuality used to be classified as a mental illness. Fortunately those times are over, at least in Australia and other scientifically advanced countries. But the stigma remains for many. Counselling can assist you with things like stress management, communication strategies and problem solving. Having a professional to talk with regularly can be useful.


Advice if you are Gay with Bipolar (or even Coming Out with Bipolar)

Gay people with bipolar have shared a few tips with me over the years I’ve been working as a counsellor.

  1. Because we want people to accept us, we might find ourselves in the position of trying to please others. Trying to meet others expectations and sensing their judgement can put pressure on mood, so bipolar people need to take extra care of themselves.
  2. Once we get too high or really down, bipolar can be difficult to self-control, so there is some sense in moderating the highs and lows. Working out strategies with a talk therapist or counsellor can help us to do this.
  3. It’s probably better not to start or cease medication without some assistance or consultation with a doctor. That way, if anything goes wrong with the chemistry, someone else knows what is going on and can offer support.
  4. Have some routines and rules for yourself. Too much structure can suck the life out of us, but too little can make life unmanageable and overwhelming.
  5. And following on from this: Keep doing the things that make you feel well! Make time to relax! Relaxation strategies can be something you develop in these psychology consultations.

Most people would agree it’s not great to feel out of control (at least not for too often). It might be more difficult to apply focussed psychological strategies during times of mania, hypomania or deep depression but meeting with a counsellor at other times can help ensure these extreme mood shifts are less likely to happen.

Do you have experience with being gay and bipolar? What strategies have you used? What advice do you have for others?