Wednesday, October 15, 2008

(Sue Scheff) Teens, Sex and Depression

“It hurts, because I care so much about him.”

– Teagan, 15 years old

Fifteen-year-old Teagan says her new boyfriend is wonderful. “I never thought anyone like Preston could come along,” Teagan says. “He’s the greatest guy I’ve ever known.”

But is she as lucky as she thinks?

Studies show that romantic involvement brings adolescents down, rather than up. What’s more, researchers at the University of North Carolina find that teen girls who are sexually active are twice as likely to be depressed compared to girls not having sex.

But, even among abstinent teens who date, one of the problems is trust.

“Say your boyfriend went off to work and never called you that day,” Teagan says. “And you talked every single day on the phone. I mean you’d be kind of concerned and kind of wondering why. And then someone comes along and says ‘well maybe he’s cheating on you…’”

Combine adolescent insecurity with imagination and the result is a lot of questions: Where is he? Why doesn’t she call? Does he really like me? Why is she talking to that other boy?

That’s where most of the stress comes in,” Teagan says. “Getting thoughts in your head about what might be going on, when it probably isn’t going on at all.”

Experts say parents can help ease their child’s pain by listening and taking them seriously. It’s not puppy love to them, it’s real. “It hurts,” Teagan says, “because I care so much about him.”

Experts also advise teaching your child that early relationships may hurt, but they’re indispensable. “They will have many relationships before they finally settle on a life mate,” says Cheryl Benefield, a school counselor. “Let them know that when things happen, it’s maybe just preparing them for a better relationship in the future.”

Tips for Parents

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, boys and girls seem to be equally at risk for depressive disorders during childhood, but during adolescence, girls are twice as likely as boys to develop depression. Family history and stress are listed as factors, but another factor that often causes depression in girls is the break-up of a romantic relationship.

The authors of a study conducted at Cornell University titled “You Don’t Bring Me Anything but Down: Adolescent Romance and Depression,” found that females become “more depressed than males in adolescence partly as a consequence of their involvement in romantic relationships.” The reason? According to the study, “females’ greater vulnerability to romantic involvement explains a large part of the emerging sex difference in depression during adolescence.”

At any given time, five percent of children suffer from depression. Children under stress, who have experienced a loss, or who suffer from other disorders are at a higher risk for depression. Here are some signs of depression from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (if one or more of these signs of depression persist, parents should seek help):

Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
Decreased interest in activities, or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
Persistent boredom; low energy
Social isolation, poor communication
Low self-esteem and guilt
Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
Increased irritability, anger or hostility
Difficulty with relationships
Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
Poor concentration
A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
Talk of or efforts to run away from home
Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self destructive behavior
Getting an early diagnosis and medical treatment are critical for depressed children.

Depression is a serious condition, which, if left untreated, can even become life threatening. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, leading to nearly 4,000 deaths a year. The rate has tripled since 1960. Therapy can help teenagers understand why they are depressed and learn how to handle stressful situations. Treatment may consist of individual, group or family counseling. Medications prescribed by a psychiatrist may be needed to help teens feel better.

Ways of treating depression include:

Psychotherapy: to explore events and feelings that are painful and troubling. Psychotherapy also teaches coping skills.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy: to help teens change negative patterns of thinking and behaving.
Interpersonal therapy: to focus on ways of developing healthier relationships at home and school.
Medication: to relieve some symptoms of depression (often prescribed along with therapy).
Journal of Health and Social Behavior
National Institute of Mental Health
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
National Mental Health Association
University of North Carolina