October 10th is World Mental Health Day – a chance to think about your mental health, and that of the people around you, and learn a bit more about how it can affect you and your loved ones. Mental health is as important as physical health, and yet it is often overlooked. In recent years people have started to recognise just how prevalent mental health issues are, and how important it is to be aware of invisible conditions that people may be struggling with – in part thanks to initiatives like World Mental Health Day, and the work of activists and educators who go out of their way to help people find the support they need.
This year, the theme of Mental Health Day is mental health and the workplace. According to the UK counselling directory, an estimated one in four UK adults will experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem, though only 230 of every 300 affected will actually visit their GP. What’s more, thanks to mental health stigma and a lack of guidance and support in the workplace, many people will not be able to seek the help they need – whether that’s time off work for counselling or diagnosis, or support directly from their employer.
At Hot Octopuss HQ, we’re acutely aware of the ways in which mental health can have an impact on your sex life as well as other aspects. While only those working in the sex industry are likely to have sex or masturbate while at work, mental health issues which can be caused or exacerbated by work can directly affect your sex life and libido. The opposite side of the coin is that for some people sex and masturbation can have a positive effect on their mental as well as physical health.
Mental health and sex
Let’s start with some of the benefits, because as we’re sure many of you know, sex and masturbation can be a boost to your mental health. There are immediate benefits such as the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, however, there’s much more to it than that: sex has also been shown to boost self-esteem, lower stress-related blood pressure problems, and also mitigate some of the problems that can come from social isolation.
However, knowing the benefits of sex and masturbation doesn’t make someone immune from mental health problems, and shouldn’t ever be suggested as a ‘cure’ or solution. Telling people with mental health problems that masturbation or sex might help is a little like saying ‘go for a run! It’ll do you good!’ Technically some people benefit from exercising, but often the act of doing it can be difficult or impossible when you’re already wrestling with depression. What’s more saying ‘just have some sex/go for a run/masturbate’ is incredibly dismissive and doesn’t take into account the whole picture – that mental health conditions are more than just ‘unhappiness’ – they are illnesses that can often take significant time and resources to overcome.
What’s more, these illnesses themselves often make sex and masturbation difficult or impossible, something of a catch-22. Depression and anxiety can both lower your libido – or even put you off sex and masturbation all together. And mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK.
Even if you’re undergoing treatment, side-effects of some medication used for anxiety and depression – like SSRIS – can include a drop in libido or even numbness or erectile dysfunction that makes it difficult or impossible to orgasm. In the UK, talking therapies such as CBT are increasingly prescribed by doctors, but as many people who have been through counselling can attest, the act of talking about mental health can be incredibly draining – and particularly in the early stages of counselling and support, it may well be the case that you simply don’t have the energy or drive to put sex at the top of your priority list.
There are many ways you can start to tackle this – giving yourself some space and time to spend on the things you really want to do, for instance. This is often referred to as ‘self-care’ – treating yourself kindly, allowing yourself time to focus on what your mind and body needs rather than on what you think you should be doing. It is also important to talk to partners and friends where you can. Although there is still stigma attached to mental health, the people who love you may be able to support you through tough times: and partners should understand the ways in which your mental health may impact intimacy.
If you’re the partner of someone with a mental health condition, you can support them by asking them how they are, and how best you can help. Some people might enjoy the release of sex, and find it helps them manage their condition, others might need other forms of touch or support during difficult mental health episodes. Understanding when to be intimate and when to avoid anything that could put pressure on is vital if you want to support your partner while they are struggling.
Mental health support in the UK
If you are struggling with mental health, your GP should be your first port of call – they can speak to you and offer various options for support which may include talking therapies or medication. If you aren’t yet registered, you can find your nearest GP using this handy NHS tool.
However, it’s worth noting that your GP isn’t the only source of mental health support. Some people feel uncomfortable talking to their GP about mental health, and others sadly find that they don’t always receive the help that they need. Mental health charities such as Mind offer online resources that are available to everyone, and the Samaritans can provide a safe place to talk.
But looking after your mental health isn’t just a one-off thing: and mental health awareness isn’t confined to just one week each year. Understanding how your mental health affects other areas of your life can help you identify when you are going through bad patches, or when you may need extra support – from friends and family as well as professionals. But whether you need support yourself or you want to be a good friend to someone else who needs it, hopefully World Mental Health Day can give you that timely reminder to check in: mental health is as important as physical health. To your sex life, your work life, and everything you do.