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Sex Differences in Adolescent Depression: An Overview of Current Research

 

At some point in many people’s lives, clinical depression may affect their mental and physical well being, causing the world to seem bleak and hopeless.  Indeed, depression is much more common now than once believed, with nearly eight percent of all Americans experiencing a severe depressive episode that leaves them unable to function for weeks, or even months.  Symptoms of depression include loss of motivation, profound sadness, low self-esteem, physical aches, feelings of hopelessness, a loss of interest in most activities and difficulty concentrating.  This debilitating disorder affects all aspects of a person’s life.  However, women are much more affected by this disorder, considering that women are almost twice as likely as men to develop depressive symptoms (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990). 

This apparent sex difference in depression seems to rise dramatically during the adolescent years.  Before the age of 11, girls and boys seem to have fairly equal depressive rates; however, once girls enter adolescence, they become much more depressed than boys do.  In fact, by the age of 18, females have twice the depressive rate of males (Women’s Health Weekly, 1998).  According to Koenig (1994), the surging rates of female adolescent depression continue to affect women throughout their lifespan; it is suggested that if girls do not receive the necessary treatment in adolescence, it is likely that their depressive symptoms could continue into adulthood.

The implications of the higher rate of female adolescent depression are frightening.  Girls are more likely than boys to seriously consider suicide, as well as to attempt it.  According to the 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 30% of high school girls report seriously considering suicide, compared to 18% of boys seriously considering suicide (Phillips, 1998).

There also seem to be racial and ethnic differences in female adolescent depression.  Asian girls appear to have the highest rate of depressive symptoms, followed by Hispanic, Caucasian, and African-American girls.  In the same 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study, Hispanic girls had the highest rates of suicide consideration, followed by African-American girls (Phillips, 1998).

Society’s teenage girls seem to be facing a huge barrier to proper development and happiness.  According to The American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (1998), adolescents’ responses to questionnaires show that the adolescent years are a far more negative time for girls’ mental and physical health than boys’.  Unfortunately, their depressive episodes often go unnoticed by adults, because depressive symptoms are often perceived as normal adolescent female moodiness (Phillips, 1998).  In other words, parents and teachers may notice that young girls seem withdrawn, sad or apathetic, but attribute this behavior to female mood swings that are supposed to be normal during adolescence.  In fact, females tend to show certain symptoms of depression more often than boys, such as poor body image (Sands, 1998).  

If adults are to notice, and hopefully treat female adolescent depression, it is necessary to know which factors contribute to the decline in her mental well being in the first place.  Many contributing factors that trigger depressive episodes in both sexes could be partially to blame.  For example, poverty is a major contributing factor to adolescent depression in general. Edelsohn et al. (1992) and Ialongo et al. (1993) used data from the Baltimore Prevention Program Study, and found that, out of the first graders studied, children from the impoverished neighborhoods had higher mean depressive scores than children from more affluent neighborhoods.  Likewise, data from a randomly selected sample of 1,208 high school students found that both boys and girls in low socioeconomic backgrounds are more susceptible to many stressors and support deficits, therefore, possibly making them more vulnerable to depression (Gore et al., 1992).

Similarly, people from low socioeconomic environments are often exposed to more violence, another possible contributor to depression.  Aneshensel and Sucoff summarized from their 1996 sample of 877 adolescents in Los Angeles that youth in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods often perceive their environments as being more dangerous than the youth in high socioeconomic neighborhoods.  Therefore, the more threatening the adolescents’ perceptions of their home environments, the more common the depressive symptoms.  Also, Singer et al. (1995) found via a self-report questionnaire issued to various high school students that violence exposure variables explained a significant portion of variance in depression.

Another possible contributing factor may be parental depression, which may lead to marital conflict and adversely affect skillful parenting, and therefore contribute to maladjustment in the child.  For example, Conger et al. (1993) found that economic pressures could lead to depression in parents, which negatively affects their parenting style.  In turn, their children’s adolescent adjustment is affected.  Equally important, Downey and Coyne (1990) reviewed various studies done on depressed parents, and suggested that the children of depressed parents are at risk for many adjustment problems, specifically clinical depression.

 

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