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Poor mental health and casual sex feed off of each other in teens and young adults. Each one contributes to the other over time.
Teens who showed depressive symptoms were more likely than others to engage in casual sex. Those who engaged in casual sex were more likely to later consider suicide.
"Several studies have found a link between poor mental health and casual sex, but the nature of that association has been unclear," explained 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," she added. "This study provides evidence that poor mental health can lead to casual sex, but also that casual sex leads to additional declines in mental health."
Sandberg-Thoma and her research partner Claire Kamp Dush, assistant professor of human sciences at Ohio State, were surprised by one finding: There is no difference between 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 sexual relationships, 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.”
Adolescents from 80 high schools and 52 middle schools were interviewed while in school and then again when they were aged 18 to 26. They were asked about romantic relationships and depressive symptoms including suicide. About one-third reported casual sexual relationships. Those students who reported sexual relationships were more likely to be the ones who reported depressive symptoms as young adults. Casual sex during teen years increased the odds of suicidal thoughts in young adulthood by 18 percent. Casual sex during late teen years did not have the same effect.
There may be a cyclical pattern: Poor mental health leads to casual sex, which then creates a depression. The goal for health care providers should be to prevent the cycle.
Sources: MedicalNewsToday, Journal of Sex Research
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