The influence of depressive symptoms and school-going status on risky behaviors: a pooled analysis among adolescents in six sub-Saharan African countries

Background Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) regarding risky behaviors among adolescents remains scarce, despite the large population (approximately 249 million out of 1.2 billion globally in 2019) of adolescents in the region. We aimed to examine the potential influence of depressive symptoms and school-going status on risky behaviors among adolescents in six SSA countries. Methods We used individual cross-sectional data from adolescents aged 10–19 based in eight communities across six SSA countries, participating in the ARISE Network Adolescent Health Study (N = 7,661). Outcomes of interest were cigarette or tobacco use, alcohol use, other substance use, getting into a physical fight, no condom use during last sexual intercourse, and suicidal behavior. We examined the proportion of adolescents reporting these behaviors, and examined potential effects of depressive symptoms [tertiles of 6-item Kutcher Adolescent Depression Scale (KADS-6) score] and school-going status on these behaviors using mixed-effects Poisson regression models. We also assessed effect modification of associations by sex, age, and school-going status. Results The proportion of adolescents reporting risky behaviors was varied, from 2.2% for suicidal behaviors to 26.2% for getting into a physical fight. Being in the higher tertiles of KADS-6 score was associated with increased risk of almost all risky behaviors [adjusted risk ratio (RR) for highest KADS-6 tertile for alcohol use: 1.70, 95% confidence interval (95% CI): 1.48–1.95, p < 0.001; for physical fight: 1.52, 95% CI: 1.36–1.70, p < 0.001; for suicidal behavior: 7.07, 95% CI: 2.69–18.57, p < 0.001]. Being in school was associated with reduced risk of substance use (RR for alcohol use: 0.73, 95% CI: 0.53–1.00, p = 0.047), and not using a condom (RR: 0.81, 95% CI: 0.66–0.99, p = 0.040). There was evidence of modification of the effect of school-going status on risky behaviors by age and sex. Conclusion Our findings reinforce the need for a greater focus on risky behaviors among adolescents in SSA. Addressing depressive symptoms among adolescents, facilitating school attendance and using schools as platforms to improve health may help reduce risky behaviors in this population. Further research is also required to better assess the potential bidirectionality of associations.
sub-Saharan Africa, adolescents, risky behavior, depressive symptoms, schools