Severe mental illnesses (SMIs), such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, persist over time and can cause extensive disability leading to impairments in social and occupational functioning. People with SMI have higher morbidity and mortality due to physical illness than the general population and may be more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behaviour (e.g. unprotected intercourse, having multiple partners, involvement in the sex trade and illicit drug use), putting them at risk of poorer sexual health outcomes including sexually transmitted infections. Sexual health promotion interventions, developed and implemented for people with SMI, may improve participants' knowledge, attitudes, beliefs or behavioural practices and could lead to a reduction in risky sexual behaviour.
To evaluate the effectiveness of sexual health interventions for people with SMI compared with usual care and their applicability to the UK NHS setting.
Thirteen electronic databases were searched from inception to December 2012. All controlled trials (randomised or non-randomised) that met the following criteria were included: any sexual health promotion intervention or combination of interventions intended to change the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, behaviours or practices of individuals with SMI (defined as adults aged 18 years who have received a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder) living in the community.
A systematic review of the clinical evidence was undertaken following recommended guidelines. Data were tabulated and discussed in a narrative review.
Thirteen randomised controlled studies met the inclusion criteria. The methodological quality of the included studies varied considerably, with only a minority of studies (n = 2) being considered as having very few methodological limitations. Despite wide variations in the study populations, interventions, comparators and outcomes, four studies showed significant improvements in all measured sexual risk behaviour outcomes (e.g. human immunodeficiency virus knowledge and behaviour change) in the intervention groups compared with the control groups. In contrast, four studies found significant improvements in the intervention groups for some outcomes only and three studies found significant improvements in certain subgroups only, based on either gender or ethnicity. Finally, two studies reported no significant differences in any sexual risk behaviour outcomes between the intervention and control groups. Moreover, positive findings were not consistently sustained at follow-up in many studies.
Little detail was provided in the studies regarding the content of interventions, how they were delivered and by whom, making replication or generalisability difficult.
Owing to the large between-study variability (especially in the populations, interventions, comparators and reported outcomes) and mixed results, there is insufficient evidence to fully support or reject the identified sexual health interventions for people with SMI. In addition, there are considerable uncertainties around the generalisability of these findings to the UK setting. Further research recommendations include well-designed, UK-based trials of sexual health interventions for people with SMI as well as training and support for staff implementing sexual health interventions.
PROSPERO number CRD42013003674.
The National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment Programme.