How poor mental health and casual sex reinforce each other

A new study suggests that poor mental health and casual sex feed off each other in teens and young adults, with each one contributing to the other over time.

Researchers found that teens who showed were more likely than others to engage in as . In addition, those who engaged in casual sex were more likely to later seriously consider suicide.

"Several studies have found a link between poor and casual sex, but the nature of that association has been unclear," said Sara Sandberg-Thoma, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in human sciences at The Ohio State University.

"There's always been a question about which one is the cause and which is the effect. This study provides evidence that can lead to casual sex, but also that casual sex leads to additional declines in mental health."

Sandberg-Thoma conducted the study with Claire Kamp Dush, assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State. The research was published online recently in the Journal of Sex Research and will appear in a future print edition.

One surprising finding was that the link between casual sex and mental health was the same for both men and women.

"That was unexpected because there is still this sexual double standard in society that says it is OK for men to have casual , but it is not OK for women," Kamp Dush said.

"But these results suggest that poor mental health and casual sex are linked, whether you're a man or a woman."

The study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Adolescents from 80 high schools and 52 middle schools were interviewed when they were in grades 7 through 12 and then again when they were aged 18 to 26.

In all, this study involved about 10,000 people who were surveyed about their romantic relationship experiences across time, as well as depressive symptoms and thoughts of suicide.

Overall, 29 percent of the respondents reported engaging in any casual sexual relationship. These were defined as any relationship in which the participant reported he or she was "only having sex with partner" as opposed to dating. This included 33 percent of men and 24 percent of women.

The results showed that participants who reported serious thoughts of suicide or more depressive symptoms as teens were significantly more likely to report having casual sexual relationships when they were young adults.

Casual sex, in turn, was linked to further declines in mental health. Specifically, those who had casual sex in their late teens and early 20s were significantly more likely to have serious thoughts of suicide as young adults, results showed. In fact, each additional casual sex relationship increased the odds of suicidal thoughts by 18 percent.

However, casual sex in late teens and early 20s was not associated with changes in depression as a young adult.

The researchers are not sure why casual sex was linked to later serious consideration of suicide, but not depressive symptoms, in these participants. It may be that depressive symptoms fluctuate during adolescence and it is hard to capture an accurate reading when measured just twice, as in this study, Kamp Dush said.

But the findings suggest that both researchers and health professionals need to consider more than one measure of mental health.

"Just because a person does not indicate depressive symptoms in one survey is not always proof that he or she is doing OK," Kamp Dush said.

"We need to look at multiple indicators of mental health, including suicidal thoughts."

The results do point to a possible "cyclical pattern" in which poor mental health leads to casual sex, which leads to further declines in mental health, Sandberg-Thoma said.

"The goal should be to identify adolescents struggling with poor mental health so that we can intervene early before they engage in casual sexual relationships," she said.

Kamp Dush said casual sexual relationships may hurt the ability of young adults to develop committed relationships at an important time in their development.

"Young adulthood is a time when people begin to learn how to develop long-term, satisfying and intimate relationships," she said.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers study psychological impact of casual sex

Dec 08, 2009

University of Minnesota Project Eating Among Teens (EAT) researchers have found that young adults engaging in casual sexual encounters do not appear to be at increased risk for harmful psychological outcomes as compared to ...

Recommended for you

Meaningful relationships can help you thrive

12 minutes ago

Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in overall well-being. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being ...

Learning to read involves tricking the brain

52 minutes ago

While reading, children and adults alike must avoid confusing mirror-image letters (like b/d or p/q). Why is it difficult to differentiate these letters? When learning to read, our brain must be able to inhibit ...

Smartphone beats paper for some with dyslexia

1 hour ago

Matthew Schneps is a researcher at Harvard University with a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also happens to have dyslexia, so reading has always been a challenge for him. That ...

High dietary salt may worsen multiple sclerosis symptoms

13 hours ago

High dietary salt intake may worsen multiple sclerosis symptoms and boost the risk of further neurological deterioration, indicates a small observational study published online in the Journal of Neurology, Ne ...

Inside the teenage brain: New studies explain risky behavior

21 hours ago

It's common knowledge that teenage boys seem predisposed to risky behaviors. Now, a series of new studies is shedding light on specific brain mechanisms that help to explain what might be going on inside juvenile male brains.

User comments