Sex and Suicide
| By Adam Wilkenfeld
CWK West Coast Bureau Chief
ringing would send me into like sobbing fits. I went into
… intensive therapy for a while; I started going on
| Kyle was 16 and in love when a split with her
boyfriend left her heartbroken last year.
“She was just sad, I mean, she didn’t want to
deal with the world,” says Kyle’s best friend,
Kyle skipped school for three months and became so depressed
that Laura had to talk her out of suicide.
“To tell you the truth, if she hadn’t been in
my life at that point, I don’t know if I would be alive
right now,” Kyle says.
The breakup was particularly devastating, perhaps because
a year earlier Kyle’s ex-boyfriend was the first boy
with whom she’d ever had sex.
Teen love and sex are supposed to be magical and happy, but
they may actually go hand-in-hand with teen suicide and depression,
according to a controversial new study from the Heritage Foundation,
a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Some experts
say this school of thought makes sense.
“They can get hurt in ways that they haven’t
really thought out because they’re paying attention
to their hormones more than they are their intellect,”
explains Dr. Jim Hutt, a clinical psychologist and a licensed
marriage and family therapist.
In the Heritage study, 14% percent of girls who have had
sex said that they have also attempted suicide, compared to
just 5% of sexually inactive girls. Experts say that this
effect is most likely found in younger teens and in girls,
but they caution that sexually active boys are also much more
likely to attempt suicide than boys who are not. It’s
a sign that teens put too much emphasis on sex and not enough
on communication, some experts say.
“Have the child explore their feelings and put words
to their feelings,” advises Maria Flaherty, a sex educator,
counselor and therapist. “When the child has words to
describe their own thoughts and feelings, they are able to
communicate that in a relationship and take an equal part
in a relationship.”
Kyle says that what she’s learned is to take things
“As an individual person, you need to make decisions
that feel right for you, not because of other people pressuring
you,” she says.
The findings of a new
study suggest that girls who are sexually active may struggle
with depression and make suicide attempts more often than
girls who do not have sex. The study, sponsored by the Heritage
Foundation, analyzed data on 2,800 students (aged 14 to 17)
collected by the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent
Health. They found that 25% of sexually active girls say they
are depressed all, most or a lot of the time, compared to
8% non-sexually active girls who feel the same. Consider these
additional statistics from the study:
- About 14% of girls who have had intercourse have attempted
suicide, compared to 5% of sexually inactive girls.
- About 6% of sexually active boys have tried suicide, compared
to less than 1% of sexually inactive boys.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH),
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 Cornell University study 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.” According
to the study, the reason is because “females’
greater vulnerability to romantic involvement explains a large
part of the emerging sex difference in depression during adolescence.”
The NIMH estimates that 8% of adolescents and 2% of children
(some as young as 4 years old) suffer symptoms of depression.
Most of those nearly 3 million adolescents never get help
for their depression, with only one in five receiving the
medical treatment they so desperately need.
All teens experience ups and downs. Every day poses a new
test of their emotional stability – fighting with a
friend, feeling peer pressure to “fit in” with
a particular crowd or experiencing anxiety over a failed quiz
– all of which can lead to normal feelings of sadness
or grief. These feelings are usually brief and subside with
time, unlike depression, which is more than feeling blue,
sad or down in the dumps once in a while.
According to the Nemours Foundation, depression is a strong
mood involving sadness, discouragement, despair or hopelessness
that lasts for weeks, months or even longer. It also interferes
with a person’s ability to participate in his or her
normal activities. Often, depression in teens is overlooked
because parents and teachers feel that unhappiness or “moodiness”
is typical in young people. They blame hormones or other factors
are for teens’ feelings of sadness or grief, which leaves
many teens undiagnosed and untreated for their illness.
The Mayo Clinic reports that sometimes a stressful life event
triggers depression. Other times, it seems to occur spontaneously,
with no identifiable specific cause. However, certain risk
factors may be associated with developing the disorder. Johns
Hopkins University cites the following risk factors for becoming
- Children under stress who have experienced loss or who
suffer attention, learning or conduct disorders are more
susceptible to depression.
- Girls are more likely than boys to develop depression.
- Youth, particularly younger children, who develop depression
are likely to have a family history of the disorder.
Parents Need to Know
If you suspect that your teen is clinically
depressed, it is important to evaluate his or her symptoms
and signs as soon as possible. The National Depressive and
Manic-Depressive Association cites the following warning signs
indicating that your teen may suffer from depression:
- Prolonged sadness or unexplained crying spells
- Significant changes in appetite and sleep patterns
- Irritability, anger, worry, agitation or anxiety
- Pessimism or indifference
- Loss of energy or persistent lethargy
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
- Inability to concentrate and indecisiveness
- Inability to take pleasure in former interests or social
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
It is important to acknowledge that teens may experiment
with drugs or alcohol or become sexually promiscuous to avoid
feelings of depression. According to the National Mental Health
Association, teens may also express their depression through
other hostile, aggressive, risk-taking behaviors. These behaviors
will only lead to new problems, deeper levels of depression
and destroyed relationships with friends, family, law enforcement
or school officials.
The development of newer antidepressant medications and mood-stabilizing
drugs in the last 20 years has revolutionized the treatment
of depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, medication can
relieve the symptoms of depression, and it has become the
first line of treatment for most types of the disorder. Psychotherapy
may also help teens cope with ongoing problems that trigger
or contribute to their depression. A combination of medications
and a brief course of psychotherapy is usually effective if
a teen suffers from mild to moderate depression. For severely
depressed teens, initial treatment usually includes medications.
Once they improve, psychotherapy can be more effective.
Immediate treatment of your teen’s depression is crucial.
Adolescents and children suffering from depression may turn
to suicide if they do not receive proper treatment. The American
Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide is
the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. The
National Association of School Psychologists suggests looking
for the following warning signs that may indicate your depressed
teen if contemplating suicide:
- Suicide notes: Notes or
journal entries are a very real sign of danger and should
be taken seriously.
- Threats: Threats may be
direct statements (“I want to die.” “I am
going to kill myself”) or, unfortunately, indirect
comments (“The world would be better without me.”
“Nobody will miss me anyway”). Among teens, indirect
clues could be offered through joking or through comments
in school assignments, particularly creative writing or
- Previous attempts: If your
child or teen has attempted suicide in the past, a greater
likelihood that he or she will try again exists. Be very
observant of any friends who have tried suicide before.
- Depression (helplessness/hopelessness):
When symptoms of depression include strong thoughts of helplessness
and hopelessness, your teen is possibly at greater risk
for suicide. Watch out for behaviors or comments that indicate
your teen is feeling overwhelmed by sadness or pessimistic
views of his or her future.
- “Masked” depression:
Sometimes risk-taking behaviors can include acts of aggression,
gunplay and alcohol or substance abuse. While your teen
does not act “depressed,” his or her behavior
suggests that he or she is not concerned about his or her
- Final arrangements: This
behavior may take many forms. In adolescents, it might be
giving away prized possessions, such as jewelry, clothing,
journals or pictures.
- Efforts to hurt himself or herself:
Self-injury behaviors are warning signs for young children
as well as teens. Common self-destructive behaviors include
running into traffic, jumping from heights and scratching,
cutting or marking his or her body.
- Changes in physical habits and
appearance: Changes include inability to sleep or
sleeping all the time, sudden weight gain or loss and disinterest
in appearance or hygiene.
- Sudden changes in personality,
friends or behaviors: Changes can include withdrawing
from friends and family, skipping school or classes, loss
of involvement in activities that were once important and
- Plan/method/access: A suicidal
child or adolescent may show an increased interest in guns
and other weapons, may seem to have increased access to
guns, pills, etc., and/or may talk about or hint at a suicide
plan. The greater the planning, the greater the potential
- Death and suicidal themes:
These themes might appear in classroom drawings, work samples,
journals or homework.
If you suspect suicide, it is important to contact a medical
professional immediately. A counselor or psychologist can
also help offer additional support.
Foundation for Suicidal Prevention
Association of School Psychologists
Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association
Institute of Mental Health