Untouchables? Sexual intimacy between people with mental health issues

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By Grant J Everett

One of the presentations at TheMHS 2017 was about how rare it is for to focus on how satisfied people with mental health issues are with their sex lives.

Called “Warm Human Contact: Let’s Get Out There”, the presenters included John Downie (PIR Manager of New Horizons), Suzanne Leckie (Head of Service Delivery from SANE), Rhiannon Werner (Project Coordinator from New Horizons) and Ceris Lane, who shared the details of her lived experience of hypersexuality (see story on page 23). Their talks were light-hearted and cheeky, but also very informative and relevant.

First off the bat, JOHN DOWNIE discussed how hospital and community mental health treating teams won’t usually view the sexual satisfaction of a person with mental health issues as all that important. “It is rare, he says, for this topic to be raised by either the therapist or the person undergoing the therapy.” Considering the high value many of us place on our sex lives, leaving this subject untouched may seem strange.

If a psychiatrist does discuss a patient’s sex life, it’s likely to have negative connotations: how being unwell can make somebody incapable of giving consent, blanket no-touch rules in hospital wards, how mental health conditions can lower our inhibitions and lead us to do things we regret later, the dangers of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), the statistically heightened risk of giving birth to a child who develops mental health issues, and so on. How much pleasure you get out of it is rarely a consideration.

Admittedly, even for professionals who deal with intimate topics on a daily basis, sexual satisfaction is a very personal subject. After all, if you want to offend somebody, then probing their sex life without an invitation is asking for trouble. So while therapists may discuss your sex life if there is some kind of direct clinical reason (for instance, if hypersexuality is damaging your relationships, or if you are in marriage counselling), discussing the details of your satisfaction levels may still be considered taboo by many workers in the mental health field.

Whether we talk about it or not, there are many beneficial aspects to being satisfied with our sex lives. Beyond the fact it feels good (duh) it also builds intimacy, it’s great for stress relief, it can be a good workout, it provides a natural high, it’s fun, and it’s just a good way to pass the time. Sex has also been linked to all sorts of health benefits. However, we need to stress that you don’t necessarily need to be having sex to be satisfied with your sex life! Some people are deliberately celibate, and that’s fine. Some are completely asexual (meaning they have zero interest in sex), and that’s valid, too. Being “satisfied” doesn’t necessarily mean having a large volume: it means being fine with the volume you choose to have (if any).

A lot can stand in the way of our sexual satisfaction. As many mental health issues can be a quick path to isolation without the right help, being alone logically means that your sex life will suffer. Whether we have sex or not, the fact remains that we all need human contact of some kind. Sadly, people who are locked away in wards will often go a long time without coming into physical contact with other humans, and being deprived of this most basic of requirements is no good for our wellbeing.

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