It is no secret that depression is an issue facing many teens, particularly teen girls. But a large new study published in May has provided some alarming data suggesting that depression among teen girls is much more common than we previously thought. The study found that by the age of 17, 13.6 percent of boys and a whopping 36.1 percent (more than one third!) of girls have been or are currently depressed. These numbers are significantly higher than previous estimates.
Researchers have long acknowledged a gender gap in depression, beginning in the teen years and persisting through adulthood. But the new research suggests that the gender split happens even earlier than we previously thought.
The study’s lead researcher explained that the previous main theories about the gender gap in depression were related specifically to the teen years. “The idea was that it was something in particular, socially or biologically, that was happening about mid-adolescence in girls that led to this increase. What we found partially contradicts that.” The new research found that the gap is already significant by age 12, indicating that any gender differences may originate in social events or biological effects earlier in childhood than previously believed.
There are various theories for the gender gap in depression. One that seems compelling to me as a clinician is that there may be a single underlying phenomenon, with different people developing different disorders based on social influences (with girls more often developing depression symptoms and boys more often developing conduct problems and aggression, which will often get a different diagnostic label). It also seems likely to me that biological influences, such as hormones, contribute to the gap; it wouldn’t be surprising then that the age for the gender split has lowered, given how the average age of puberty in girls has lowered over time.
Given the prevalence of depression among teens, it is critical that parents, teachers, and others be aware of the risk and learn to recognize the signs. These include periods – usually two weeks or more – of low mood, feeling unable to enjoy previously enjoyed activities, insomnia or excessive sleep, irritability, changes in weight, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Given that research now suggests that more than a third of girls will go through depression before making it out of their teens, it seems particularly important for anyone close to a teen girl to reflect on this troubling statistic and how to support the girls in our lives.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
* The research above was obtained from: Cha, A. (2017, May 31). More than a third of teenage girls experience depression, new study says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2017/05/31/more-than-a-third-of-teenage-girls-experience-depression-new-study-says