New research addresses the sexual health issues of mental illness

head in hands

Fri, 05 Feb 2016 13:51:00 GMT

The £600,000 project is funded under the National Institute of Health Research Health Technology Assessment Programme

PEOPLE with serious mental illness experience poor physical health, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  In addition, there is growing evidence that they also experience poor sexual health.  Now the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Elizabeth Hughes (pictured right) has received funding to address the issue.

Professor Elizabeth Hughes The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment Programme has awarded £606, 494 for the project, in which Professor Hughes will be joined by a UK-wide team including academics, practitioners and people with lived experience of using mental health services.

“Sexual health in its broadest sense includes not just being free from sexually-transmitted infections, but also includes being able to express sexual identity and orientation, and have intimate relationships free from exploitation and abuse,” explains Professor Hughes.

“We have partners from the fields of mental health and sexual health represented.  We needed to bring people from these different disciplines together,” added Professor Hughes, whose long-standing research interest in the dual issue of mental illness and sexual health has also resulted in the publication of a new article on a review of prevalence of HIV, hepatitis B and C in The Lancet Psychiatry.

Sexuality and sexual health

The first six months of the NIHR-funded project will focused developing an intervention in consultation and collaboration with mental health and sexual health practitioners as well as people who use mental health services.  It will cover areas such as sexual health assessment – including family planning – as well as examining safety in relationships. 

Sexual Health sign The trial of the intervention will commence later in the year with South West Yorkshire Mental Health Trust being one of the settings.  The goal is to establish the feasibility and acceptability of a package that will address specific needs of UK people with serious mental health issues.  Should the study show promise, it would provide a basis on which to build a subsequent larger study which would recruit sufficient numbers to be able to establish clinical and cost-effectiveness.

Elizabeth Hughes – who is Professor of Applied Mental Health Research at the University of Huddersfield’s School of Human and Health Sciences – began her career as a mental health nurse working in settings that included an acute inpatient mental health and drug and alcohol detox clinic, as well as community substance use services in London.  She developed a special interest in the “dual diagnosis” of people with mental health issues alongside substance-use problems.

“As part of my day-to-day work, I would ask questions about sexual health and many people were not aware of risks regarding their sexual relationships.  Sexuality and sexual health are topics often ignored or avoided by mental health staff.  This means that needs don’t get identified and addressed,” said Professor Hughes, explaining the origin of a research theme that has culminated in her latest project.

Apple with sad and happy faces In 2013, Professor Hughes was awarded a grant from the Mental Health Research Network enabled her to develop a Clinical Research Group in Mental Health and Sexual Health and she established a network of collaborators.  

‌In addition, there is a sub-theme on sexual health and mental health led by Professor Hughes within the Co-morbidities and Mental Health theme led by Professor Simon Gilbody at the University of York.  It is one of 10 themes in the Yorkshire and Humber Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care.  This is an NIHR infrastructure which supports collaboration for applied health research between universities, the NHS and other service providers and the public.  

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