Mental Health Awareness Week: Sexual Well-being Across the Life-span

Mental Health Awareness Week: Sexual Well-being Across the Life-span

As Mental Health Awareness Week commences on Monday 13th May, this year's focus is on the importance of physical activity for our mental wellbeing. It’s widely known that exercise, like running, walking, or playing sports is good for our mental health, but we can often overlook how important a satisfying sex life is for our mental and sexual well-being.  

As we grow older, our sexual needs and wellbeing can change, which can significantly impact on our mental health. Therefore, it’s important to explore how our sexual needs change across different stages of life and their impact on our mental health. 

Therefore, to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week - let’s explore our sexual wellbeing from adolescence right up until later adulthood. 

Adolescence

During puberty, teenagers start to experience changes in their bodies as they develop sexually - these changes are primarily driven by hormonal shifts. In males, increased levels of testosterone lead to the growth of facial and body hair, deepening of the voice and increased size of the testes and penis. Similarly, females experience increased levels of oestrogen causing development of breasts, the beginning of menstruation and the growth of pubic and underarm hair.  

Alongside these physical changes, hormonal shifts can also impact on emotions and behaviours, causing mood swings, irritability and changes in sexual desire. The beginning of sexual feelings can often bring about a mix of emotions including excitement, confusion, and curiosity as teenagers explore their sexuality and sexual needs. 

Teenagers may also face mental health challenges like anxiety and low-self esteem, which can be due to concerns about sexual orientation, body image, appearances, or acceptance by their peers. Also, a lack of sexual education may cause misunderstandings and negative attitudes about sex. Therefore, during Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to help encourage positive sexual wellbeing and mental health through open communication, providing education, and supportive resources to help those navigating puberty and adolescence to face challenges with confidence and resilience. 

Young adulthood

Young adulthood is a time of discovery, exploration and experimentation in forming sexual relationships. Individuals are discovering who they are and what they want out of life. They might find themselves engaging in sexual activity more frequently as they navigate romantic relationships and sexual experiences. 

However, this exploration isn’t always easy. Young adults may face challenges with questions about their sexual identity, figuring out who they’re attracted to and what that means for them.  Decisions about maintaining sexual wellbeing and using contraception effectively may also impact on their mental health as they begin to explore and understand their own sexual needs. 

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity can also add additional stress to an already challenging time - feeling judged or excluded because of who they love or how they identify can take a toll on mental health, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression.  

Therefore, this mental health it’s important that we stay informed on sexual wellbeing, whether that’s through using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy, educating ourselves on sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis or creating welcoming spaces, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. 

Parenthood / Middle Adulthood

Parenthood and middle adulthood bring about many changes to our sex life and our own sexual needs. Some individuals may experience a decrease in sexual activity or libido due to the demands of family life or responsibilities, while others may find they have a stronger connection with their partner during this time. 

Challenges such as fatigue, body image concerns post-pregnancy and different priorities can affect our sex life and how we feel mentally. Also, hormonal changes, erectile dysfunction or other sexual concerns can affect our libido and sexual desire, resulting in reduced lubrication, discomfort during sex and making sex less pleasurable.

Therefore, this Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to maintain open communication with our partners, a shared understanding or using sexual aids like lubrication to help make sex more comfortable. Also, if it’s needed, seeking professional help can enable us to navigate around these challenges and promote positive sexual wellbeing. 

Later Adulthood

During later adulthood, our bodies go through various physical and hormonal changes that can impact on our sexual health and well-being. While there’s a common misconception that older people have less sexual activity, many continue to engage in healthy sexual relationships well into their 80’s and beyond.

However, alongside these challenges, older adults can also face other challenges which may impact on their sexual wellbeing, such as chronic health conditions like arthritis or heart disease which can impact on physical comfort and stamina during sexual activity. In addition, medication side effects commonly prescribed for age-related ailments can often affect libido or sexual function. 

Feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly after the loss of a partner or close friends can also reduce interest in sexual intimacy and connection, whilst caregiving responsibilities can cause high levels of stress and fatigue, further impacting on sexual and mental wellbeing.

Therefore, this Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to raise awareness about the challenges faced by older adults in maintaining their sexual well-being and mental health. Through open communication with healthcare providers, exploring alternative medications with fewer side effects as well as building social connections to reduce loneliness, we can ensure that healthy sexual wellbeing and mental health can be maintained throughout the later years.

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