Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Teens who have had sexual intercourse are more likely to feel depressed and suicidal than teens who have not become sexually active, says a new study from the Heritage Foundation.

Early sexual activity, in addition to causing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, “is a substantial factor in undermining the emotional well-being of American teenagers,” said the study written by Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson and Lauren R. Noyes.

Using data from a national survey of 6,500 teens ages 14 to 17, researchers found teen girls who had sexual intercourse were three times more likely to be depressed than girls who had not.

Similarly, sexually-active boys were twice as likely to be depressed than peers who had not had sex.

Suicide attempts also were significantly more common among sexually-active teens than their chaste peers.

“A lot of the safe-sex curricula in schools today are very focused on physical health aspects,” Mr. Johnson said yesterday. “We think the safe-sex message to adolescents fails to adequately communicate the emotional risks involved in early sexual experimentation. Clearly, having more of an abstinence message is going to alleviate those concerns.”

Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council said the Heritage study was consistent with other research on the effects of sexual activity on teens.

“This study is one more reason why abstinence education is a more compassionate policy approach than pushing ‘safe sex,’” Miss Maher said.

Teen depression is linked to many things, such as family history, divorce, grades, sexual abuse and even questioning of sexual orientation, said Tamara Kreinin, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a group that opposes government funding of abstinence-until-marriage education.

Comprehensive sexuality education is best because it gives teens “a lot of critical-thinking skills” and other guidance that should help teens make responsible, informed decisions about relationships and prevent depression, she said.

“Normal sexual experimentation is different from dangerous risk-taking, and the fact that an adolescent is engaging in sex is not necessarily a dangerous risk,” said Dr. Lynn Ponton, a child psychiatrist in San Francisco and author of the book “The Secret Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls.”

Many teens are ready for healthy sexual behavior, said Dr. Ponton. “In fact, many of them say that’s how they find themselves. Finding and developing your sexuality really encourages the development of identity in teenagers.”

The Heritage analysts used data from the 1996 National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which was conducted with 6,500 middle and high school students.

They found that:

• Of girls who have had sexual intercourse, 25.3 percent were often depressed and 14.3 percent attempted suicide in the last year. In contrast, only 7.7 percent of virgins said they were regularly depressed and 5.1 percent attempted suicide.

• Of boys who have had sexual intercourse, 8.3 percent were often depressed and 6 percent attempted suicide in the last year. This is compared to 3.4 percent of virgins who were depressed and .7 percent who attempted suicide.

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