Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Teen Depression: Sex, Drugs and Shockin' Toll

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine's October 2005 report has an interesting study by Dr. Denise D. Hallfors of the University of North Carolina (reprinted here). To determine whether depression in teens preceded or followed drug use (alcohol, tobacco or street drugs) or sexual behavior Hallfors and her colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This study collated data from nearly 13,500 students in grades 7 to 11. The students were first interviewed in 1995 and re-interviewed in 1996.

From the article:
Teenagers who reported experimenting with substances or sex in 1995 were more likely to report depressive symptoms in 1996 than were abstainers...
The data was so compelling that they reported the use of sex and drugs "predicted an increased likelihood of depression," whereas the opposite was not true. Depression in teenagers did not predict sex and drug use. These findings fly in the face of the common belief that depressed teenagers engage in sex and take street drugs or drink as a means of self-medication.

Girls who reported experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or sex were up to three times more likely to be depressed the following year than their abstaining peers. In addition, girls who had multiple sex partners or engaged in intravenous drug use were up to eleven times more likely to be depressed. Boys who used drugs, like marijuana, were four times as likely as their abstaining peers to be depressed. Interestingly, they were only four times as likely to experience depression when having multiple sexual partners compared to the girls' eleven times in the same one year span...

The report goes into greater detail, but I've summarized the most notable aspects.

What is to be made of this data?

Well, if you have a teenager you now have hard evidence that of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, the music might be the least of your worries. Parents who enable their teens to take drugs or drink under "controlled" situations are playing with fire.1 Teens' minds are still developing and mind altering substances can damage those developing minds. Sex, too, involves chemical abuse. The rush of endorphins can lead to addictions to the chemical labs we carry around with us. And the pursuit of sex outside of a normal, fulfilling relationship leads to disassociations, relationship difficulties, child pregnancy, and worse.

Our society seems to frown on any form of morality as outdated and ignorant, so perhaps we can take this data and present it in a way that doesn't trigger the knee-jerk reaction of social progressives and instead appeals to common sense. Vices are destructive enough for adults, but when brought into the world of teenagers the high intensity experiences of drugs, alcohol, and sex have a detrimental effect. Putting aside child pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, drug overdoses, car accidents, and death, we now know that these experiences induce depression into our youth.

What Can You Do?

Dr. Hallfors suggested that parents...
"Monitor your children's behavior."2

"They are at an age where they want to experiment and if there's lots of opportunities for them to experiment they probably will," Hallfors said.
This may not seem like news to any parent, but perhaps more needs to be done in our school systems to bring attention to this problem so that peer pressure can be diminished. Telling a teenager that partying with their friends might cause depression is a tough sell.3 But it's a message that we are going to need to drive home if we want to see our kids survive into adulthood with their self-esteem and psyche intact. The only question I have is why did it take them nine years to get this message out?

Coping Strategies:

1) About a year after graduation one of my classmates got killed in a drunk driving incident. At the reception after his funeral his parents had a tent set aside for youth to get alcohol in a controlled environment. Many people vocally praised this as a great idea. I wasn't there at the time, but when I heard of it I was flabbergasted. Didn't the method of this boy's death mean anything to these people? Was it pride or their ideals that caused them to erect such a tent? I don't prescribe to the attitude that "if we don't give them the drinks they'll just go out and get them somewhere else. At least when we give them the drinks we know they're safe." What type of lessons in responsibility are we teaching kids with this type of attitude? If we endorse illegal drinking, sex, or drug usage then we set our children up for a fall. If you want to give your kid a beer or a glass of wine in your own home, that's one thing, but to set up a public party is to extend your liberties into somebody else's realm. My suggestion would be in light of this new data, please rethink your policy on controlled parties. This is no light matter. The brain is delicate. Don't meddle with your child's mind for the sake of your ideals. They'll have opportunity enough to drink and party when they are adults, but then they will have the maturity to deal with the sensations and experiences better.

2) Don't trust the other parents. Period. A healthy dose of paranoia is completely normal to nurture in these types of situations. All your kid needs is one experience with crack or crystal meth to change their lives irreparably. Keep them on a tight leash.

Dealing with abstracts is something only mature minds handle well. Telling teens that something bad might happen one day is not going to be effective. But showing them the events that happen to teens near their age is very effective. Your local news agency will have stories every week of teens whose lives have been destroyed by sex or drugs. Share them with your kids under the proper settings - leaving time for discussion. Educate them about the dangers with real life examples and you will help prepare them to make informed choices.

My posts this week have been fairly heavy. I'll try to find something light to snicker about next time.

UPDATE: 11/1/05 - Yahoo! news item was down, so I've linked to another blog that quoted the article.