Sex and Drug Use Increase Teen Suicide Risk

Abstainers have lowest levels of depression

Depressed teen sitting on stairs
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Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens in the United States and the rate of teen depression and suicides have been on the increase for decades.

Although many factors can be involved in a young person's decision to commit suicide, one study has found that adolescents who engage in high-risk behaviors are more likely to attempt suicide.

Specifically, teens who are involved in sex and illegal drugs have significantly higher odds of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts than teens who say no to sex and drugs, researchers said.

Screening for Depression

"These results suggest that healthcare professionals who identify adolescent patients reporting sexual intercourse or drug use should strongly consider screening for depression and risk of suicide," says study author Denise D. Hallfors, Ph.D., a Senior Research Scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Previous studies have found that 28 percent of U.S. high school students experienced severe depression, and the third leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds is suicide.

Hallfors and colleagues analyzed various sex and drug behavior patterns via data from a survey of nearly 19,000 teens in grades 7 through 12. The data were gathered from 132 U.S. schools as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Abstainers More Healthy

The researchers divided the teens into 16 groups according to their behaviors. Some of the groups included the abstainers, who avoided sex and drugs; sex dabblers; alcohol and sex dabblers; teens with multiple sexual partners; and illegal drug users.

Those in the abstainers group had the lowest levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, while teens in groups associated with sex and drugs, and heavy use of illegal drugs such as marijuana had the highest levels. In between were the dabblers in sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Girls were less likely than boys to pursue high-risk behaviors, but girls who did were more vulnerable than boys to the constellation of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts, the study found.

Surprising Socioeconomic Findings

"Another interesting finding involved the association of socioeconomic status with depression. While higher socioeconomic status reduced the likelihood of depression by about half, it increased the risk of suicidal thoughts," Hallfors said.

A later study by Hallfors and colleagues found that engaging in sex and drug behaviors places adolescents, and especially girls, at risk for future depression. But, they found that depression was not a predictor of behavior for either boys are girls.

Effective Treatment Is Available

Hallfors and colleagues advise healthcare professionals to screen all teens for sexual behaviors and drug use. Those who engage in such behaviors - especially those who do more than dabble in them - should be screened for depression and suicide risk also.

"It is particularly important not to miss opportunities to diagnose depression because effective treatments are available, or to overlook suicide risk because suicide can be prevented," Hallfors says.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse funded the study.


Hallfors, DD et al. "Which Comes First in Adolescence—Sex and Drugs or Depression?" Journal of Preventive Medicine October 2005

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