Hook up culture may be making your teen depressed

Aug 28, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. ET
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Teens are having sex — some within the context of a relationship and others on a more casual basis. Parents need to know that there may be a link between casual teen sex and depression.

If you are parent to a teenager, you know the list of things to worry about is lengthy. Now it seems that if your teen is sexually active, there is a chance he's also suffering from depression. What's the potential connection between the two, and what do parents need to know?

Study compares possible link

While it has been suggested that adolescent sexual activity is associated with risk of depression, the true relationship between the two has been unclear. Examining symptoms of depression and details of dating and sexual activity only tells part of the story — what about genetics? A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined data on 1,551 sibling pairs from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to determine whether these depressive symptoms were independent of possible genetic factors.

Study results suggest that genetics and environment accounted for symptoms of depression in teens that were sexually active with a romantic partner. But teens involved in casual sexual activity were more likely to suffer symptoms of depression not related to genetics than their peers who didn't engage in casual sex. Does this prove that casual sex causes depression? Turns out it's not that simple.

Which comes first?

Daria M. Brezinski, Ph.D., is a professional psychologist and professor who works with teen depression, attempting suicide and intimacy. "In my 30 years of experience, the depression comes first and the behaviors follow," she says. "No one is born depressed, angry, suicidal or antisocial — these are learned behaviors or behaviors that arise because of the need to cope due to lack of skills in a circumstance."

Brezinski says that people seem to think these issues with youths are a response to what's happening currently in their lives, but that the roots are in the beginning stages of life, in the formative years. "Youths who are depressed were not loved, nurtured or cared for in the initial stages of life for one reason or another — day care experience, abuse, lack of parenting skills — therefore, they have no idea how to love themselves, find a loving relationship or witness love when it is given to them. Walking around with filters that could not notice love if it were right in front of them, they seek to find it inappropriately, unhealthily or just wallow in self-pity/depression," she adds.

Looking for love?

Carole Lieberman, M.D., shares that divorce is the number one cause of depression in teens — and it causes them to look for love in all the wrong places. "Teen girls whose fathers have left the family and are dating or married with new families, are especially vulnerable to desperately looking for male love and accepting sex as a substitute," she says. "Teens are not emotionally ready for sexual intercourse. Sadly, when teens engage in intimacy that they are not ready for emotionally, it causes them to become depressed," she adds. "So, it is a vicious cycle."

The bigger picture

Leslie Dixon is founder and executive director of the Birds and Bees Connection, and has been a school nurse for more than 20 years. "Teen depression due to intimacy is a much bigger issue," she says. "I think teens crave intimacy due to the fact they don't feel a sense of belonging due to multiple external pressures that impact their overall self-esteem and self-worth." Dixon shares some of the external factors that can lead to poor self-esteem, depression and engaging in high-risk behaviors such as casual sex.

  • Society expectations
  • Family expectations
  • Peer pressure
  • Media pressure
  • Self-imposed issues

"When you take all these pressures under consideration and the fact that teens' brains are not fully matured, add drugs or unhealthy diet and you have a clear path to depression, eating disorders and other high-risk behaviors," she adds.

If your teen exhibits signs of depression, seek help from your pediatrician or mental health professional as soon as possible.

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