“My son has struggled with depression since middle school, and it seems to have only gotten worse since he came out as bisexual last year. He’s a junior in high school now. Did coming out make it worse? How can I best support him?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Ashleigh Tobin, MA, LLPC
Thanks so much for your question! As a therapist who works primarily with LGBTQIA+ individuals, my heart overflows whenever I hear from parents who want to learn how to best support their child. The challenging reality is often that parents like you can be tough to find, so thank you for engaging in this work of learning and loving.
The difficult part about answering your question is that I don’t know your son. I am not sure how he experiences depression, what coming out was/is like for him, or whether coming out may be contributing to his feeling more depressed. Depression and the coming out process are two things that can look vastly different from person to person. The only thing I can say for certain is that your son needs your support regardless of the answers.
I can (and will) offer you some information about what the latest research says and from my experience in working with bisexual clients. However, if you really want to know if coming out has made your son’s depression worse, you should ask him. If you want to know how he best receives support or what his unique needs are, ask him. Sometimes parents feel uncomfortable asking their child about their needs or experiences because they feel that it is their responsibility to know already. Guilt can easily creep in when you don’t know or aren’t sure how to proceed. My advice is to not let that guilt win out. Your son is the expert on himself, and by asking, you are demonstrating respect for his agency as well as your desire to care for those needs. You might be surprised by his level of awareness, and another great outcome is that this will help your son understand that it is more than OK for him to approach you with his thoughts or desire for support. If your son doesn’t know how to answer, remind yourself that that’s OK too—your expression of concern is still crucial and you can walk alongside each other in the journey of figuring things out.
In my work as a psychotherapist, here are some key points to consider:
An individual’s mental health may or may not be strongly related to their sexuality. While the research tells us that LGBTQIA+ individuals are significantly more likely to experience mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, your son’s depression may not have a direct connection to his sexual orientation. For instance, his depression may be more significantly linked to a chemical imbalance, unresolved anxiety, etc. Struggles related to sexuality and the coming out process are linked to societal rejection, stigma, judgmental religious dogma, etc. This is especially true for bisexual individuals who exist in a world that questions the legitimacy of bisexuality. Your son’s sexuality is something to be celebrated and embraced, not pathologized. As I mentioned prior, it’s best to get your son’s take on this. You might consider asking him how or whether he feels his sexuality and mental health are connected. Perhaps he feels stigmatized or pathologized as a young bisexual man, but it is also possible that he’s never really considered if this is the case. Either way, your engaging him in these topics opens the door to better understanding.
Coming out can set you free, but it can also make you even more vulnerable. Your son likely felt a sense of relief in coming out and in taking steps to embrace his identity. However, coming out also increases the possibility of his facing double discrimination from both LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual communities. Due to these pressures, many bisexual individuals learn to operate from a defensive position; attempting to conceal their sexuality, or internalizing the stigmas they face.
As a parent, you can play a key role in helping to cultivate your son’s resilience and in validating his identity. Talk openly with your son about your acceptance of him, about how you’ve dealt with criticism or rejection in your own life, and about the importance of surrounding himself with supportive peers. Additionally, you may want to consider finding a bisexual mentor for your child and participating in LGBTQIA+ support groups.
Belief makes things possible. Work on cultivating your belief in a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life for your child. This can happen—and it will be alongside, not in spite of of his sexuality. If you learn to trust that your child’s mental health can improve and that his life as a bisexual individual can be wonderful, then he too can begin to believe that this is possible. You both deserve this! Keep reading, engaging, and growing, and don’t be afraid to seek support or therapy for yourself or as a family.
Thanks again for your question and for your vulnerability in reaching out. We experience support when we experience connection and the good news is that this is something you already know how to do. Be well.
Ashleigh is a Psychotherapist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The foundation of Ashleigh’s approach to counseling is the idea that you will never be good at being anyone other than yourself. She focuses on who you are, where you’ve been, and who you are becoming in relation to yourself and others. Ashleigh specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ individuals, women, and young adults. Maintaining a safe, collaborative, and judgment-free space where ALL are welcome is her top priority. When she’s not working, you can find her watching the Great British Baking Show with her wife, playing guitar, doting over her cat Oatmeal Stout, and drinking Manhattans. Follow her on Twitter @theraqueer