Stigma and the sexual isolation of people with serious mental illness

Eric R. Wright, Dustin E. Wright, Brea L. Perry, Carrie E. Foote-Ardah

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Sociologists have long recognized the importance of spousal or intimate partner support for individuals' mental and physical well-being. Numerous studies, however, suggest that people with serious mental illness have considerable difficulties in finding and maintaining intimate partner relationships. Using qualitative data collected from a large sample of people with serious mental illness as part of an HIV prevention research study, this paper explores the narrative explanations of sexual isolation for the sub-sample of individuals who reported no current sexual activity (N = 261). The analysis revealed an array of eight, interrelated explanations of sexual inactivity, including poor access to sexual partners; experiencing sexual dysfunction; psychosocial difficulties forming relationships; fearing disease or pregnancy; moral and quality of relationship concerns; sexually restrictive treatment cultures and settings; everyday life with mental illness gets in the way; and feeling devalued and withdrawing from others. More generally, these findings offer empirical insights into the multiple ways through which the stigma of mental illness influences the daily lives of people, including individual experiences of social rejection, structural forms of discrimination, as well as important social-psychological processes that reshape the self and behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-98
Number of pages21
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Psychiatric disabilities
  • Serious mental illness
  • Sexual behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Stigma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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