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How depression affects sexual desire is a lot more complicated than first thought

Depression is an individual experience. And new studies are showing that the way it can impact our lives can also be super varied.

We know that depression–and certain depression medications such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)–can have a negative impact on sex drive. But new research is showing that the connection between depression and sexual interest is a lot more complicated than first thought, being almost as individual as those who experience depression.

In women particularly, a noticeably low sex drive is a solid indicator of major depressive disorder.

“Change in sex drive is a key symptom we look at when deciding if someone fits the diagnosis for major depressive episodes,” said Jennifer Payne, M.D., director of the Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins, in an article for the medical research organisation.

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“A primary symptom of depression is the inability to enjoy things you normally enjoy, like sex. People with depression also have decreased energy, feel badly about themselves and might view their partners through a negative filter, all of which impacts sex drive.”

Emerging research is also drawing a connection between sex and self-harm, as higher levels of depression are linked to more risk-taking than lower levels.

For an externalizer, i.e. someone who copes with mental illness outward, this might include having sex despite not wanting or desiring it, and/or not being interested, even disgusted, by the other person as a way of hurting or humiliating oneself.

It could also involve risky behaviour such as unprotected sex and engaging in BDSM without the usual safety precautions and boundaries, like use of a safe word, that most people who practice BDSM do.

“These behaviors may be pursued for multiple reasons, such as seeking distraction or temporary relief from emotional pain. For some, however, these behaviors may also be a way of punishing oneself,” writes Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller for Psychology Today.

“By contrast, other people are internalizers, meaning they cope by looking inward and socially withdrawing. This is likely to reduce sexual activity, in part, because it reduces opportunities for sex.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, call BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636.