Theses Doctoral

Psychological Distress, Sexual Risk Behavior, and Attachment Insecurity among Young Adult Black Men who Have Sex with Men (YBMSM)

Cook, Stephanie Hazel

Background: Though there continues to be a significant amount of research aimed at understanding factors associated with participating in sexual risk behavior in populations of YBMSM, there has been far less research concerned with understanding how psychological distress may influence sexual risk behaviors and how emotional bond formation may affect the relationship between psychological distress and sexual risk behavior. This study aims to better understand the relationship between psychological distress and sexual risk behavior as well as the moderating effect of adult attachment insecurity on this relationship.

Methods: Three data collection strategies were utilized to address the study aims: 1) cross-sectional (n = 228), 2) eight-week structured diary (n = 153), and 3) semi-structured interview (n = 30). The cross-sectional survey provided measurement information on adult attachment style using a modified version of the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale (ECR) that consists of the attachment avoidance and anxiety subscales, the Brief Symptoms Inventory (BSI) and the Kessler-10 (K10). Sexual risk was measured by assessing unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) and serodiscordant UAI in the last two months. The eight-week structured diary utilized weekly reports of UAI encounter vs. no UAI encounter, and serodiscordant UAI encounter vs. no serodiscordant UAI encounter. The K10 and the Profile of Moods (POMS) anxiety and depression subscales measured psychological distress. The semi-structured interview assessed childhood attachment. Regression analyses were used to analyze the cross-sectional data. Random effects and population average regression models were used to analyze the structured diary data. A thematic inductive analysis technique was utilized to analyze the qualitative data.

Results: Overall, participants reported slightly elevated mean scores on the attachment anxiety subscale while scores on the attachment avoidance subscale remained low. Participants reported an average of two UAI partners in the last month and an average of 1.3 UAI encounters over the eight-week diary period. Psychological distress scores were slightly elevated in the cross-sectional survey and depression scores were elevated in the diary component. For Aim 1, men higher on attachment insecurity (anxiety and avoidance) had higher levels of general psychological distress, depression, and anxiety in comparison to men who were more secure. The qualitative data supported the quantitative findings and showed that subjective appraisal of traumatic events and sexual orientation disclosure may mediate the relationship between childhood attachment and adult mental health. For Aim 2, the quantitative findings suggested that attachment insecurity was not related to sexual risk behavior. However, the qualitative component suggested that participants who were anxious used sex as a means to try to create an emotional bond, while participants who were avoidant used sex as a means to feel good without wanting to create an emotional bond. Both anxious and avoidant men seemed to participate in more concurrent sexual relationships which could increase their likelihood of HIV/STI transmission. For Aim 3, men who were more depressed and had higher levels of general psychological distress were more likely to report a serodiscordant UAI encounter in a given week. The qualitative data supported the quantitative findings and suggested that men might use sex as a means of escape their negative mood. This model of "escapism" could have lead to participation in sexual practices that increased men's risk of HIV/STI transmission. For Aim 4, adult attachment insecurity did not moderate the relationship between psychological distress and sexual risk. The qualitative data suggested that secure attachment in childhood was important to adequately coping with stressful situations, which in turn promoted overall well-being.

Conclusion: Study findings suggest that understanding adult attachment may lead to a better understanding of psychological distress and sexual risk behavior among YBMSM. The results highlight the importance of considering childhood and young adult emotional bond formation in the development of HIV/STI prevention intervention activities aimed at addressing the heightened rates of sexual risk behavior among YBMSM. This research could have valuable implications for the development of HIV/STI and mental health prevention interventions aimed at reducing sexual risk behaviors and promoting well-being in populations of YBMSM


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Wilson, Patrick A.
Dr.P.H., Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
Published Here
June 26, 2017