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Depressed Teens More Likely to Engage in Risky Sex

A study published in the July 2006 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics found that teenagers who suffered from depression were more likely to engage in high risk sexual behavior. The researchers found that about 20% of all teenagers may have depressive symptoms, which increases the likelihood that they will engage in risky sexual behavior. Due to the high rate of depressive symptoms among teens, the researchers highlighted the importance of parents, as well as the medical community, in promoting mental health among young people. While other studies conducted on this issue also suggest a connection between depression and risk-taking sexual behavior, this study is distinctive because of its breadth in looking at a large national sample of teenagers over a one year time-span.1

Researchers analyzed results from interviews of about 4,000 teenagers in 1995, and then conducted follow-up interviews one year later. Using a nineteen-item questionnaire, researchers determined each participant’s level of depression.2 The results showed that depressive symptoms in male teenagers predicted low condom use and low use of other types of birth control the last time they engaged in sexual intercourse. Male teens were also more likely to have abused substances before sexual intercourse.3 Results were similar for female teenagers who showed signs of depression, as they were also less likely to have used birth control the last time they engaged in sexual intercourse, were more likely to have abused substances, and were more likely to have had three or more sexual partners in the previous year.4

While the study did not find definitive reasons for the link between depression and increased risky sexual behavior, the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Lehrer, suggested that teenagers may use sexual intercourse as a way to deal with their depression. “Youth who are emotionally distressed and socially isolated may be more likely to seek or be successfully pressured into sexual activity, in the name of some kind of shared intimacy, or to maintain relationships that they value,” said Lehrer.5

Based on the study, Dr. Lehrer concluded that the findings offer “only further reason to increase our efforts to promote mental health, and to prevent, identify and treat depressive symptoms and disorders among adolescents.” She also emphasized the importance of parental involvement in their teenagers’ lives, as well as the importance of parents being familiar with the signs of depression in teenagers. Dr. Lehrer advised that, “[i]n addition to providing strong and consistent emotional support to their teens, it is important for parents to encourage and actively support their teens in seeking mental health care when needed.”6


  1. Anne Harding, “Depression Tied to Risky Teen Sex,” Reuters, 10 July 2006, accessed 14 July 2006, <
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jocelyn A. Lehrer, Lydia A. Shrier, Steven Gortmaker, and Stephen Buka, “Depressive Symptoms as a Longitudinal Predictor of Sexual Risk Behaviors Among US Middle and High School Students,” Journal of Pediatric, 118.1 (July 2006): 189-200, accessed 14 July 2006, <>.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Harding.
  6. Ibid.