Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. Despite its prevalence, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals rarely speak to the impact depression can have on sexuality, and even more rarely suggest utilizing cannabis as an alternative therapy. I spoke with JoEllen Notte, a sex educator, writer, and creator of the first sex-positive online survey on sex and depression, to get her take on dealing with depression and whether cannabis can help revitalize a depressed person's sex life.
JoEllen Notte, sex educator
Ashley: How long have you lived with depression and in what ways has it affected your sex life?
JoEllen: I have been acknowledging the depression for the last 11 years, but the symptoms have been there for about 17 (since I was 19). As for my sex life, it has differed. I always say my depression comes in two distinct "flavors":
- I can't do anything, I want nothing to do with sex, and I eat everything that isn't nailed down
- I'm super productive, I want nothing to do with food, I fuck everything that isn't nailed down
A: Which one tends to be more common for you?
J: The first one. When that happens, I lose all interest and the idea of sex can be stressful, almost like the world is demanding more from me.
A: You created an online survey on sex and depression and received 1,100 responses. How did that come about?
J: The survey came about because I had done a little writing about my own experience with sex and depression (first when a new drug killed my libido and orgasms), and I started hearing from people about their experiences. The recurring theme I noticed was people weren't feeling heard. Partners of people dealing with depression were often the loudest voices in my comments fields (but what about ME?!), drowning out the depressed folks, and that just pissed me off.
I did the survey for two reasons: First, because I wanted data on how widespread the experience of depression damaging one's sex life was and that data didn't exist. Second, because I wanted to give this experience and the people who are having it a voice.
A: What were the most surprising results of the survey?
J: Of the 1,100 people who participated in the survey, I interviewed 20. Some of the most interesting stuff came out of the interviews. Before I started the project, several people dismissed it based on the assumption that "depressed people don't want to have sex, anyway," so they wouldn't be able to differentiate between medication side effects and depression. We didn't ask about sexual side effects of depression when people were not medicated on the survey but we did in the interviews, and over 2/3 of those respondents reported that when their depression was untreated they had/wanted MORE sex.
Another thing that came out of the survey was the information about communication with doctors. We found that a lot of people were not talking to their doctor about symptoms. When asked why, we found an interesting combination of bad experiences with dismissive/sex negative doctors, shame, and fear, and also just some possibly unfair assumptions about the willingness of doctors to listen/help. A lot of people are afraid to talk.
A: I’m so glad you’re giving them a voice. I’ve experienced a lot of relief with depression-related side effects when I incorporate cannabis into my sex life. Have you also found that to be helpful?
J: For me, because my sex and depression relationship manifests in anxiety about sex, I find that cannabis is frequently the thing that can get me over the hump (so to speak) and back into the place where things sound pleasant again. I found this out completely accidentally when I was smoking for pain, but it was a really happy discovery. OG Kush and Girl Scout Cookies are my favorites for sexy time. I always picture those old-school round dimmer switches (like my aunt had on her "classy" dining room chandelier), and for me it feels like someone comes along and turns one of those down on my anxiety. The rest of me is still there, but the unpleasant stuff is turned way down. Also, GSC always makes me a little goofy.
I also chatted with Stephen Biggs, RP, who assisted JoEllen with the survey and provided his psychological expertise when designing the questions and analyzing the results. He added:
“I think that for some people who experience a lot of anxiety or negative cognition, people who are self conscious and distracted by performance anxiety… Anything that helps them relax and takes them out of their heads can enhance sexual experience. Of course, this all depends on the person's response to the cannabis. There are number of patients that I see who report that they use cannabis as an anxiolytic [anxiety inhibitor]– it may not have a direct impact on their mood, but they feel less agitated.”
There is much more research to be done regarding cannabis, sex, and depression, but thanks to these two sexuality professionals, people are finally getting to speak out about their experiences! Do you live with depression? Does cannabis help you get out of your head and enjoy your body? Tell us your stories!