The STD We’re Not Talking About

Teen Sex and Teen Depression: Caring Adults Can Help

Dr. Meg Meeker is an author, mother of four, and practicing pediatrician for more than thirty years. In her most recent book, Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture: 11 Steps to Keep Her Happy, Healthy, and Safe, she relates a discussion with Margo, a junior in high school who had been her patient for years. When Margo came in for an office visit, Dr. Meeker noticed that she looked uncharacteristically melancholy and unkempt. She listened as Margo began to talk about feeling sad, lonely, and depressed:

“I think it came on slowly. Last summer, I felt pretty good. But after school started in the fall, I just wasn’t into it. … Now I don’t want to be with my friends. … I don’t know what to tell them. I just want to be home alone.”

“Are you sleeping okay?”

“Yeah. If anything, I sleep too much. But I have to because I’m always tired. I’ve missed a lot of days at school because I just feel too tired to go. I think I have mono.”

“Maybe. Tell me, are you getting along well with your mom and dad?”

Margo said they were getting along fine.

“What about your friends? Have you had any falling outs?”

“No, not really. Like I said, I just don’t see them as much as I used to.”

“Sorry, Margo, but I need to ask: Are you using any drugs, drinking?”

“Nope,” Margo said, looking down.

“What about any other changes? Did anyone you know die? Have you had any boyfriends, close friends leave?”

“Yeah, I had a boyfriend last summer. I really liked him, but he lives downstate, so we don’t see each other anymore.”

“Were you two having sex?”

“Well, yeah. Of course. That’s what all kids my age do – particularly if you really like someone.”

The conversation went on for another twenty minutes, and it became clear that Margo’s depression had begun shortly after the breakup with her boyfriend. She had also dated other guys and had sex with them too, though not necessarily because she wanted to. She didn’t particularly like or dislike sex, she said, but rather, “it was what he expected.” What she didn’t expect was the depression that would follow.

Studies confirm that sexually active adolescents show higher rates of depression, and Dr. Meeker says that she sees this correlation in her practice as well. She calls it “the Emotional STD.” She explains:

When a sexual relationship ends, a girl suffers from that lack of commitment and loses some sense of value, trust, affection, and intimacy – all of which can lead to depression. Girls in this situation have a hard time recognizing the cause of their depression because they think sexual activity is empowering and makes them more mature. On the one hand, they will tell me that sex is a tremendous physical, emotional, and even spiritual experience; and on the other hand, they will say – as Margo did – that it’s really no big deal and you can do it with anyone you like. Their depression lies within the contradiction. To her brain, emotions, and body, sexual activity is a big deal.

It is a big deal. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “casual sex” is a contradiction in terms. Common medical protocols for teens today involve prescription drugs in the form of contraceptives to prevent the “illness” of pregnancy and psychotropic meds to “treat” the “illness” of sadness. But these conditions are not medical illnesses. Pregnancy is the normal, healthy result of sex, and sadness is a normal (and I would say healthy) response to loss. When a girl entrusts herself sexually to a boy and then the relationship ends, she experiences a loss, even if she tells herself it was no big deal.

Contra the standard medical protocols, notice what Dr. Meeker did. She took time for Margo. She asked her about what was going on in her life and listened to her responses. It’s a rare doctor who will (or even can) do this today, but you don’t have to be a doctor to take time this way for a young person.  

Dr. Meeker also tells of working in a residential home for troubled girls. Most of them arrived angry and defiant, insisting they wanted to be left alone. But the structure of the home was such that they got lots of adult attention – adult counselors, meals with adults, teaching and joint work projects with adults. Gradually, often in as little as a week’s time, they responded. They appreciated the fact that there were adults who cared about them.

The emotional STDs will not be prevented or cured by prescription drugs. If a young person you know feels sad, lonely, or depressed, don’t look to any medicine as the first line of treatment. Certainly, there are times to seek medical care, but never discount the important role of one-on-one time and attention. It may turn out to be more therapeutic than you think.


 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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