For World Mental Health Day 2019, Brook’s Head of Innovation and Partnerships, Helen Corteen, shares her experience of the inextricable link between sexual and mental health. She tells us why it’s important that we make the connections between the two, and touches on some of the work that Brook is doing to support mental and sexual health in a wider holistic health context.
I have a photograph of a family holiday in the Norfolk Broads in the summer I did my A-levels. It’s an ordinary family photograph of me, my sister and my mum with my auntie and uncle and their dog, sitting on a bench outside a pub waiting for my dad to bring the drinks. But when I look at the photograph now, I can feel how unhappy I was at the time glaring out at me. It feels like my misery and confusion were captured just as clearly as that image of us all.
I was 17 and struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality. I remember so vividly that at the time I just couldn’t see how I could ever be happy and there was no one that I felt I could turn to. I have often wished that I could go back and put my arm round my younger self to tell her that it will all be okay; that in the future I will be able to get married to a woman if I want to, that discriminating against LGBT+ people will be unlawful and that it will be possible to legally reassign your gender to fit with your identity.
More than that, though, I would want to tell myself that even if none of these things had happened I would feel whole and love and accept myself no matter what other people thought or what the laws said.
I share this because my experience of understanding and accepting my gender and sexual identity, and developing a strong sense of my own self-worth has been the biggest task of my life. It has also been the driving force behind my personal commitment to my work. Supporting young people to develop their own sexual and mental health and wellbeing is the defining motivation of my professional life. I believe that young people need us to have open conversations that remove stigmas and taboos so that they can find their own way to their identity and wellbeing.
An inextricable link
The Government strategy and the World Health Organisation make it clear that there is no health without mental health. Mental health is something we all have – it is about how we feel and how we enjoy our lives, as well as how we manage the inevitable challenges that life throws at us. Mental health is part of life and it is unique to each one of us.
Equally, sexual health and wellbeing is a fundamental component of human life and experience. But sexual health is often thought of in purely in clinical terms like safer sex practices, STIs and contraception. In reality, it encompasses our gender and sexual identity, and can impact our sense of self-worth. Learning about, and taking ownership of, our sexual health and wellbeing also helps us to understand how we find fulfilment in our relationships, how we create our families and how we experience sexual pleasure both individually and with partners. In short, sexual health and wellbeing is inextricably linked to mental health.
This is reflected in in my own experience of mental health while realising my sexuality.
The reality is that stereotypes and prevailing societal narratives focus on a small range of body types, gender norms and sexual identities, while other experiences remain invisible and therefore marginalised.
The impact of this is far-reaching. The absence of a diverse representation of experiences leaves young people feeling pressured to conform to ideas of how to look and behave, which don’t match how they feel. It can lead to feelings of guilt or shame around their sexual desires and practices, which not only harms their mental health but can lead to riskier sexual behaviour as they do not feel safe and supported to ask questions and explore their identity in an open manner.
Healthy lives for young people
Adolescence is a time of physical and social growth and change; and navigating both mental and sexual health can present a range of challenges. When young people are supported in both their sexual and mental health, it can equip them to deal with these challenges and to lead happy, healthy lives.
Brook is committed to working with young people to take charge of and improve their health and wellbeing in the context of their lives as a whole.
We want a society where all young people are free to be themselves.
Through our unique blend of clinical services, counselling, the 1-1 My Life programme, education programmes and our digital resource hub; Brook creates safe, open, positive spaces that give young people a platform to speak freely, build their confidence and empower their choices. Across our services and programmes we take great pride in ensuring our work is inclusive and accessible. We champion the importance of confidentiality and privacy, so that young people know there is nothing they can’t ask or discuss.
Both mental and sexual health and wellbeing are deeply complex. There are often no easy or straightforward answers to a young person’s situation. What is required is time, dedication and the right level of support to empower a young person to make the decisions that are the healthiest for them.