Written by Victoria, RSEI Educator | Published September 27th, 2023

If you’re reading this, you probably already know how important sex education is in supporting young people to live happy and fulfilling lives. But given the impacts of COVID-19, it is more important than ever that we support young people’s mental health. In this blog, we are going to explore some of the latest research on youth mental health and share how sex education supports better mental health outcomes. Expanding access to sexual health information and creating more inclusive sex ed spaces could help improve, or even save, the lives of young people. 

Content Warning: This article talks about sexual violence and suicide. 

This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  released the “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report” which examines data from 2011 to 2021.There are two areas of risk that have shown improvement. First, there has been a decrease in what the survey defines as “risky sexual behavior” and there has been a decrease in substance use overall.

However, every other indicator that was measured shows an increase in risky behaviors and a decrease in overall health and well-being of youth in the past ten years. The survey shows that protective sexual behaviors like condom use and STI testing are decreasing. At the same time, experiences with violence, poor mental health, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors are increasing.

The survey also highlights the disparities amongst specific communities within our youth population. For example, female-identifying students reported experiencing violence more often than their male-identifying peers, specifically sexual violence and coercion, and they report higher rates of substance use, poor mental health, and suicidal thoughts/behaviors. 

We also learn from this survey that students who identify as LGBQ+ (the survey did not include any specific questions about identifying as transgender) or who report having any partners of the same gender, have significantly poorer mental health indicators across the board. They report higher rates of substance use and experiences with all forms of violence. Some of the most concerning statistics were that 70% of LGBQ+ students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, along with much higher percentages of suicide attempts and frequent suicidal ideation. 

We also know there are many other surveys and studies where poorer outcomes reflect the marginalization of queer and transgender students. One example is the Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ+ Mental Health from 2019 which also highlights the mental health struggles this community faces because of discrimination and lack of acceptance from society and loved ones. 

Researchers refer to a concept called minority stress to explain increased rates of mental illness amongst LGBTQ+ youth. Minority stress “is a culmination of social discrimination, stigma, and anticipated rejection from friends, family, and community”. To be clear, identifying as LGBTQ+ does not cause mental health challenges; it is the stigma, shame, and rejection from society that does.

So, how can sex ed help?

First, we want to acknowledge that sex education is not a panacea for mental health challenges. 

However, providing comprehensive, culturally informed, medically accurate, and age appropriate sex education that centers the experiences of the most marginalized in our society, can provide young people with important health information and resources, and make the school environment safer and more supportive for all students. 

Communication and Relationship Skills

Comprehensive sex education includes talking with youth about the importance of boundaries and communication in any kind of relationship. It also includes talking about other characteristics and behaviors that should be part of a safe, fulfilling relationship.

This can help students find confidence in themselves and form stronger communication skills. Feeling connected to others is an important part of human social and emotional well-being, as well as healthy development. Being able to set boundaries and understand when they are crossed assists students in finding and maintaining relationships that are healthy and safe for them.

Bodily Autonomy and Responsibility

Sex education is all about giving medically accurate information and trusting that the folks we work with are going to make the best decisions for themselves. This is one aspect of bodily autonomy.

Consent is a throughline that is clearly seen in comprehensive sex ed lessons. Teaching students about consent and how to respect other people’s boundaries, as well as their own, can help build communities of care that protect everyone. We want all young people to know how to give and ask for consent, and how to appropriately handle rejection.

The CDC survey reported the female-identifying students have experienced violence, particularly sexual violence, at much higher rates than their male-identifying peers. Consent education is essential for all students to reduce these incidents.

Knowing that you get to decide what’s right for you and feeling empowered by that helps young people’s self-esteem. They can find confidence in themselves and their choices, while knowing that they have a responsibility to honor and respect all others. Confidence and self-esteem are critical to mental health!

Violence Prevention

When we identify what abuse or violence can look or sound like, students will understand what signs to look for if they or someone they know are in an unsafe relationship.This is not to say that sex ed prevents all violence, and it is very important to remind young people – and ourselves – that it is never the victim or survivor’s fault. But by talking about it, we can emphasize to young people that they deserve to feel safe and respected. And, we can provide resources and identify trusted adults so the young people in our spaces know who they can go to if they do experience violence or abuse.

We know that intimate partner violence and suicide are closely linked public health issues. Survivors of intimate partner violence are twice as likely to attempt suicide more than once

Additionally, most clinical experts agree that teaching the correct names of body parts starting at a young age helps protect kids from predators. When we refuse to use the correct names of body parts or give them silly names, we teach children they shouldn’t talk openly about their private parts to trusted adults – even if someone is abusing them. Giving young people the correct language can help prevent abusers from taking advantage of them, and it also helps kids get the support they need and deserve if it does happen.

Reduce stigma and discrimination

Sex ed affirms the identities and expressions of our queer, trans, and gender non conforming youth. Through inclusive and affirming sex ed, we can assure them that they are more than just accepted – they are celebrated.

A 2019 survey from The Trevor Project found that “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.” If you are a youth serving adult, and especially if you are a sex ed teacher, you should be that one trusted adult for our queer and trans youth. 

Bullying is another issue we see in schools and youth spaces that can stem from discrimination and othering. By encouraging empathy in sex education, through consent conversations, non-gendered sex ed spaces, and lessons on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, we can help build a more safe, inclusive, and affirming school culture. 

The CDC has used the information gained in their Youth Risk Behavior Survey to develop strategies schools can use to address these challenges. They found “schools that implemented policies and practices to support LGBTQ+ youth not only saw improvements in health and well-being for young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual but also their heterosexual peers.” Despite what you may hear on the news or in the media, research shows that making the school safer and more supportive for LGBTQ+ students benefits everyone.

Sex education can save lives. Being a trusted and affirming adult can save lives. This may seem hyperbolic, but the research tells us that it is not. As youth-serving adults, we can make the case for more inclusive, comprehensive sex education so that we can continue to help students navigate challenges and find coping skills that do not put them at greater risk.

If you want to know more, check out the CDC’s survey yourself to examine all the nuances they unearthed in youth mental health. This can be a great resource for encouraging your school or organization to incorporate inclusive, comprehensive, affirming sex education.