JOSEPH GARDNER | EVERGREEN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Mental health issues can significantly impact one’s sex life and vice versa, especially for a population vulnerable to anxiety disorders but are sexually active, like college students. I’ve experienced these effects.
College students are susceptible to mental health concerns, specifically anxiety disorders, due to high workloads they face while trying to figure out their lives, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
College-aged students are the second-most sexually active age group, at 85 percent of 18 to 30-year-olds being sexually active, according to an article by The Telegraph.
“A lot of different mental health concerns can lead to a lot of different sexual health concerns,” said Steven Hobaica, clinical psychology doctoral candidate at WSU. “It can affect your sexual motivation in both ways, by increasing motivation with increased impulsivity and promiscuity, or decreasing motivation with a lack of drive or anxiety about sexual engagement.”
Different mental health concerns can affect sex lives in ways that depend on the individual. The two most common concerns college students face are depression and anxiety, according to the 2017 Center for Collegiate Health Report. Both can either increase or decrease sex drive and contribute to other sexual disorders such as vaginal dryness or failure to maintain an erection, Hobaica said.
As an individual suffering from depression and anxiety, I’ve faced these issues personally. When my anxiety spikes, my depression does as well and I lose all motivation, even for things I enjoy. The idea of being sexual with my partner when I have piles of homework seems almost impossible.
Arousal is difficult and I immediately become angry the moment my partner even asks. This leads to a feeling of guilt and thus more anxiety and more depression, resulting in a seemingly endless cycle of my mental health putting a strain on my relationship and sex life.
“Consent is such a huge piece,” Hobaica said. “Asking what someone is comfortable with, what they’re in the mood for and not pressuring them to have certain types of sex is crucial. Try to not be frustrated in your partner’s change in sex drive and rather try to be understanding.”
When an individual’s sex life is being affected by their mental health, their partner needs to be understanding and communicative or the relationship can fracture. I’m lucky to have a partner who understands what I’m going through and spends time simply trying to make me smile when my inability to be sexual is causing me so much stress.
Depression and anxiety can also increase sex drive as they search for external methods of treatment for their mental health concerns. Many depressed individuals may search for gratification and approval through sexual activity. This can lead to unsafe sex and the risk of STIs and pregnancy, Hobaica said.
Mental health concerns that have a side effect of impulsivity, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, can lead to these risks as well, he said.
Other mental health concerns such as certain phobias, body dysmorphia and PTSD can also affect one’s sex life, Hobaica said.
“If someone has experienced trauma from sexual assault it’s likely their trust could be broken with members of the same or opposite sex, especially surrounding sexual interactions,” Hobaica said. “If a survivor has a strong post-traumatic stress reaction when they think about their assault or when they think about sexual interactions it would be likely they would be less driven to have sex in general.”
The side effects of many medications used to treat certain mental health concerns, specifically SSRIs used to treat depression and anxiety disorders, can include vaginal dryness, failure to maintain an erection or increased or decreased sex drive, Hobaica said.
If you deal with mental illness and find it affecting your sex life, speak with your doctor or someone with Counseling and Psychological Services for more information.