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Sex is more likely to lead to depression in teenage girls than experimenting with drugs or alcohol, research has found.

Whether you are a boy or a girl, sex, drugs and alcohol screw you up, and abstinence makes the heart grow stronger, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) found in a survey of 13,500 American teenagers.

Yet boys are far less likely than girls to get depressed after experimenting with any vice.

Rock'n'Roll is still thought to be safe for consumption, though some observers suspect it may be an indicator of poor taste.

The research, to be published in the October edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, examined how eagerly teenagers took to their vices and what the consequences were for their state of mind.

It found that those teenagers who abstained from sex, drugs and alcohol showed only a four per cent chance of depression a year later, which the researchers said was "very low". Those kids who were more hedonistic had different experiences according to their gender.

Boys who only experimented with vice did not increase their likelihood of depression. But girls only had to have sex to bring on a threefold increase in their chances of becoming depressed compared to the abstainers. A two-fold increase was experienced by those girls who experimented with drugs and alcohol.

Those teenagers who binged on their vices were much more likely to develop mental health problems. Boys who binged on booze and smoked marijuana daily were three to four times more likely to be found suffering from depression a year later. Girls showed a more fragile constitution than boys. Girls who binged increased their chances of depression between two and eleven times.

Denise Halfors, the PIRE senior research scientist who conducted the survey, said her findings turned previous assumptions about substance abuse and mental health on their heads.

It is widely believed that teenagers indulge in vice in order to self-medicate mental health problems. In other words, depression leads to drug use. Halfors said her research debunked this idea: "We found that behaviour predicted depression, not the other way around."

"The theory about self medication...was supported by a survey of persons who had both mental health and substance abuse disorders. They were asked to remember back when each of the disorders started. The way they remembered it, in the majority of cases, the mental disorders came first," said Halfors.

"Both of these types of research are considered weak," she continued, "because they rely on either guesses about which came first, or recall about which came first, many years after the fact."

Halfors said the PIRE findings were stronger because they were "prospective" - they used survey data to predict what would happen a year later.

Martin Plant, professor of addiction at the University of the West of England and UK director of the European School Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), said: "These things are associated, but its not always clear what comes first. But there's no doubt that heavy drug use is sometimes a response to depression."

He added that there was no evidence that would undermine any attempts to draw a link between substance abuse and depression, such as a psychological predisposition for both. Rather, social factors such as coming from a poor background or a stressful family environment where more likely indicators.

The last findings of ESPAD, published in December 2004, found in a survey of over 100,000 children aged 15 to 16 in 35 European countries that British girls were doing more binge drinking than boys for the first time. Their drug use was similar. Generally, UK teenagers indulged more than the European average. ®

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