Engaging in sexual intercourse in early adolescence associated with an increased risk of attempting suicide

Adolescents who engage in sexual intercourse tend to face higher odds of suicide attempts, according to new research. The study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, examined more than 100,000 participants who were between 12 and 15 years old.

“Suicide is a global issue inflicting the majority of global regions and has a high prevalence among adolescents,” said study author Lee Smith, a reader in physical activity and public health at Anglia Ruskin University.

“Sexual intercourse in early adolescence may increase risk for suicidal behavior via mental disorders, distress resulting from being too psychologically immature to handle sexual relationships, and sexual violence particularly among girls.”

“However, until now, there has been no attempt to investigate whether adolescent sexual behaviour is associated with suicide attempts across countries to provide a global understanding on this topic.”

The researchers examined data from 116,820 adolescents in 38 countries who had participated in the Global School-based Student Health Survey.

The survey asked participants how many times they attempted suicide in the past 12 months. It also assessed whether they had ever had sex and their number of partners. The overall prevalence of sexual intercourse was 16.8% for boys and 9.5% for girls, and approximately 9% of adolescents had attempted suicide.

After controlling for gender, age, food insecurity, anxiety-induced insomnia, and alcohol consumption, the researchers found an association between sexual intercourse and suicide attempts in 32 of the 38 countries.

“Those adolescents who had sexual intercourse had more than double the odds of having attempted suicide in the past 12 months compared with those who had never had intercourse,” Smith told PsyPost.

Among those who had sexual intercourse, those who had multiple partners were at significantly higher risk for suicide attempts.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations. The findings do not necessarily mean that sexual intercourse in early adolescence leads to suicide attempts.

“The mechanisms underlying the association should be assessed in future studies. Causality could not be established in our study due to its cross-sectional nature. That is, it is not known whether sexual intercourse leads to a higher risk of suicide attempt or vice versa, or whether the association can be explained by a third factor (e.g. personality traits),” Smith explained.

The study, “Sexual behavior and suicide attempts among adolescents aged 12–15 years from 38 countries: A global perspective“, was authored by Lee Smith, Sarah E Jackson, Davy Vancampfort, Louis Jacob, Joseph Firthe, Igor Grabovac, Daragh McDermott, Lin Yang, Guillermo F. López-Sánchez, Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, Nicola Veronese, and Ai Koyanagi.