'It's just a peripheral issue': A qualitative analysis of mental health clinicians' accounts of (not) addressing sexuality in their work

Int J Ment Health Nurs. 2019 Dec;28(6):1278-1287. doi: 10.1111/inm.12633. Epub 2019 Jul 28.


Sexuality, relationships, and intimacy are integral parts of many peoples' lives, not negated by mental distress and illness. Yet typically, these needs are not addressed adequately in mental health settings. In-depth interviews were conducted with mental health clinicians with an aim of exploring their perceptions and understandings of sexuality and sexual concerns within mental health settings. Participants were 22 mental health nurses, psychologists, and psychiatrists working with people across a range of settings in four Australian cities. Sexuality or aspects of this were often not addressed in clinical practice, and this was common across participants' accounts. A critical thematic analysis was conducted to explore how participants made sense of or explained this silence in relation to sexuality. Two key themes were 'Sexuality is hard to talk about' and 'Sexuality is a "peripheral issue"'. In positioning sexuality as a peripheral issue, participants drew on three key explanations (sub-themes): that sexuality rarely 'comes up', that it is not pragmatic to address sexuality, and that addressing sexuality is not part of participants' roles or skill sets. A third theme captured the contrasting perception that 'Sexuality could be better addressed' in mental health settings. This analysis indicates that, beyond anticipated embarrassment, mental health clinicians from three disciplines account for omissions of sexuality from clinical practice in similar ways. Moreover, these accounts serve to peripheralize sexuality in mental health settings. We consider these results within the context of espoused holistic and recovery-oriented principles in mental health settings.

Keywords: mental health; professional practice; qualitative research; sexual health; sexuality.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatric Nursing*
  • Psychiatry*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sexuality* / psychology