Sexual Health Is Mental Health

Comprehensive sex ed is key to supporting youth mental health development.

Marchers with Bans off my Body signs during the Pride March in New York City in March 2022. (Joan Slatkin / UCG / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month—a time to share knowledge and bust stigma around mental health issues and empower our communities to take greater care of themselves and each other. As a youth sexuality educator, I have seen firsthand how comprehensive sex education that teaches young people healthy sexuality and communication, boundary-setting and consent is key to youth mental health and development.  

I first got involved with Planned Parenthood as a volunteer for their Community Action team in Nashville. After working as a sex educator at Vanderbilt University, I joined Planned Parenthood’s Sex Education Training series in a state known for being difficult when it comes to amplifying sexual and reproductive health and education. After being exposed to all the possibilities that sex education can create for people, it didn’t take me long to realize that Planned Parenthood has its finger in the pulse when it comes to advancing the reproductive and sexual justice movement. I wanted to get involved in whichever capacity I could, so I asked to work with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.  

Today, I get to give workshops and interact with teenagers about interpersonal relationships, reproductive health, safe sex, STI prevention, consent and even relationship management strategies. I have gotten to see the way sexual health competency influences the mental, emotional and physical health of young people specifically. Evidence-based research shows how a better understanding of their bodies and sexuality can have profound positive effects on a young person’s mental health, but even though we have the data, there is so much work that still needs to be done. 

Young people who receive comprehensive sex education are better at maintaining a balanced sexual and mental health. 

In my everyday work, it’s very common for me to hear young people talk about the first time they experience jealousy, shame, excitement or even love. In those moments of openness, I can teach young people healthy strategies to respond to these very human emotions, and how their response can set healthy relationships and a safer experience for everyone.

Because age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education for our youth is not a requirement in our current education system, most teenagers—especially those in disenfranchised communities of color—still hold on to deeply troubling, outdated ideas about what is happening in their bodies. They believe that their development is not normal or shouldn’t be happening at all.  

For those of us in the sex education field, it is common to have a holistic approach to our practice. In the classroom, we don’t just quiz young people on STIs. We go deeper, asking how they would feel if someone they knew was diagnosed with HIV, or how they would approach talking about a diagnosis with a partner. We explore the difficulties around discussing safe sex, and the reasons why it can make someone feel anxious or avoidant.  

According to a study by the Guttmacher institute, the feeling-while-learning strategy improves confidence, teaches teenagers interpersonal relationship skills, coping strategies, to speak up when violence or abuse might be happening, how to advocate for themselves and others, how to manage problematic partnerships, and how to reduce shame, stigma and general feelings of discomfort around sex. The research shows that young people who receive comprehensive sex education are better at maintaining a balanced sexual and mental health. 

By talking about sex with young people, we not only create a trust-based system that allows us to better guide them when making decisions, but we empower them with the tools and knowledge that could have life-altering outcomes for their futures. By receiving age-appropriate sex and emotional education, young people gain a wealth of knowledge, attitudes, skills and values to make healthier choices in their sexual and reproductive lives, which can help them gain an increased awareness of an already universal human experience and in exchange, have a happier life.  

I’m still here today because I believe the educational work I get to do daily could have profound consequences for the betterment of all our communities. But I can’t continue to do my job the best way possible until comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education is expanded, protected and codified into law. Sexual health is mental health, and the only way we can stop the epidemic of youth self-harm and deteriorating mental health that has invaded the lives of our young people is by giving them the kind of education and resources they deserve. 

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Molly Moreau is manager of the Comprehensive Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention program at Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.