sexual orientation - two men embracing, one kissing the other on the cheek

Navigating Sexual Orientation and Mental Health

Sexual orientation is not a mental illness. Rather, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual or asexual (LGBTQIA+) often face an increased risk of mental illness due to discrimination, social exclusion, harassment and violence.

As such, studies have found that LGBTIQA+ people are twice as likely to be diagnosed and treated for mental health conditions than the general population.

While many LGBTIQA+ people live happy and rewarding lives, with growing acceptance, studies show a disproportionate number also experience distress, anxiety disorders and depression.

Being supported and feeling safe to explore and express your sexual orientation and self-identity can be good for your mental health.

What is Sexual Orientation?

Sexual orientation is an individual’s emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex, same-sex, or both sexes.

However, it also involves feelings about your own body image, your approach to intimacy, individual attraction and how you develop and maintain relationships.

It can be influenced by your thoughts and desires as well as past experiences, your culture, your background, your friends or your religion, among other factors.

Exploring your sexual orientation is an important part of understanding your identity. Beyond the ability to reproduce, it also defines how you see yourself and how you physically relate to others.

There is no clear determining factor for sexual orientation, but it is generally considered to be related to a combination of environmental, emotional, hormonal and biological factors. Those factors are different for different people.

Sexual orientation isn’t a choice and can’t be changed through activities such as conversion therapy.

Broadly Defining Your Sexuality

How you define your sexual orientation is up to you and you don’t have to label yourself at all.

How you define your orientation may also change over time.

However, in broad terms, sexuality may fall into one or more of the following LGBTQIA+ categories:

  • Heterosexual or straight — attracted to people of the opposite sex
  • Lesbian — attracted to people of the same sex (used for women)
  • Gay/homosexual — attracted to people of the same sex (used for men and often women)
  • Bisexual — attracted to both men and women
  • Transexual – an umbrella term for transgender and transsexual people
  • Queer/questioning – those who are not heterosexual. Questioning is when a person isn’t 100% sure of their sexual orientation and/or gender and are trying to find their true identity
  • Intersex – a person has an indeterminate mix of primary and secondary sex characteristics
  • Asexual — not really sexually attracted to anyone
  • Pansexual — attracted to people of any gender, sex or sexual identity
  • Polysexual — attracted to people of many genders, sexes or sexual identities (though not all)

Some people may also use the term ‘fluid’ to express themselves and their feelings.

LGBTQIA+ Mental Health Challenges

Sexuality is central to self-identity, and not being able to express this is damaging to your sense of self-worth and overall mental health

Those struggling with their sexuality or deciding to tell people about their sexuality may face many mental and emotional challenges.

Common factors include feeling ‘different’ to others, feeling pressure to deny or change your sexuality as well as verbal or physical bullying about sexuality.

As such, LGBTIQA+ people experience mental health challenges, such as:

  • They are more than twice as likely to have anxiety disorders (in particular lesbian and bisexual women)
  • They report higher rates of depression and mood disorders
  • They have significantly higher prevalence of suicide attempts

A lack of LGBTQIA+ knowledge and cultural awareness contributes to the issues. Deciding to come out or live openly as a LGBTIQA+ person can be particularly challenging.

coming out - worried man sitting on bench holding rainbow flag

Coming Out

Coming out is the first step in your journey to living as an openly LGBTIQA+ person.

Coming out is a process of understanding, accepting, and valuing your sexual orientation. It involves both exploring your identity and sharing your identity with others.

Individuals do not move through the coming out process at the same speed. It happens in different ways and occurs at different ages for different people. Some people are aware of their sexual identity at an early age, and others arrive at this awareness after many years. Coming out is a continuing, sometimes lifelong, process.

You are the only person who can decide when and how it is safe to come out.

Considerations in Coming Out

In coming out to others, consider the following:

  • Pick someone who you feel is very supportive to be the first person you come out to.
  • When you come out, think about what you want to say and choose the time and place carefully based on what will be most safe and supportive.
  • Be prepared for an initially negative reaction from some people. Some individuals need more time than others to come to adjust to what they have heard from you.
  • Don’t give up hope if you don’t initially get the reaction you wanted. Remember that you have the right to be who you are, and to be out and open about all important aspects of your identity including your sexual orientation.
  • If you have already come out to others whom you trust, alert them that you are coming out and make time to talk afterward about how things went. Find trusted allies who can help you cope with your experiences.
  • Get support and use resources available to you.

Get Support

There’s a variety of resources, organisations and health professionals available to help navigate sexual orientation challenges.

Helpful online resources include:

If you’re ready to talk to a mental health professional, our psychologists can help support your journey and help you feel positive about your sexuality.

We are experienced in dealing with these sensitive topics and will provide you with a professional, safe and comfortable environment to explore your identity and any mental health concerns.

Coming out can be a difficult process and it can be helpful to seek professional help. Contact us today to find out more or to get support coming out.