What role does gender play in adolescent depression?


In this guest post Alexander Thornton explores how depression affects genders in different ways.

Statistics relating to mental illness rates in Britain are alarming. They indicate that some 25% of the population experience a mental health problem to some degree during the year, the most common being mixed anxiety and depression, with the latter affecting from 8% to 12% of sufferers. Depression affects both sexes, but at different rates and these rates vary significantly according to age.

Depression in children and adolescents

It is estimated that around 10% of all children will suffer depression by the time they reach 18. At any given time, around 1% of young children will have depression rising to around 3% after puberty. This depression often recurs and can re-emerge periodically in later life, though most sufferers will grow up to lead normal adult lives.

Depression rates for boys and girls are very different, as American studies have shown:

  • Up to age 11, boys are roughly three to four times more likely to suffer depression than girls.

  • At around 13, the rates of depression in both sexes are approximately equal.

  • By the age of 15, girls are around three times more likely than boys to experience depression.

  • At 18, twice as many girls as boys are likely to have depression. (This ratio continues into adult life)

These figures appear to be universal and apply irrespective of race or ethnicity. Also, though age has been used as a parameter, the onset of puberty is considered to a more accurate determinant.

Causes of depression in childhood

Depression is stress-related but has no specific cause and is often attributable to a combination of factors, including chemical changes in the area of the brain that controls mood. It also often runs in families, so genetics appears to play a role.

In children and adolescents, depression can be triggered by a number of factors, including:

  • Abuse – this includes physical, mental and sexual abuse, as well as bullying and neglect.

  • Family discord – lack of harmony within the family or the separation of parents.

  • Trauma – this can result from the death of a parent or someone close.

  • Problems at school such as poor academic performance.

  • Disruption caused by major change such as moving to a new home.

  • On-going poor health or a serious illness.

  • Institutionalisation.

Why girls become more at risk in adolescence

Both boys and girls commonly demonstrate feelings of helplessness and lack of control over events that can lead to depression, but it is how they explain these occurrences to themselves that differs. Feelings of helplessness are exacerbated by negative explanations – self-blame, viewing bad events as inevitable and so on. In early childhood, boys tend to be more negative than girls but as they get older the situation is reversed.

In early adolescence, boys and girls also adopt different coping strategies when faced with stressful events. Boys tend to act to solve a problem or else use distraction techniques. Girls, on the other hand, prefer to ruminate, usually thinking and talking about the problem; this has been shown to be a factor leading to higher rates of depression in adolescent girls.

Pressures on girls increase as they enter adolescence. Their self-esteem falls dramatically as social pressures take hold. They are bombarded with images of female stereotypes, causing them to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. They view increased weight as negative, while boys view increased muscle development positively. Girls also begin to view their intelligence and strength of character as hindrances in developing relationships with boys, as traditional concepts of male dominance continue, even in the modern world.

In girls, sexual abuse is a major cause of stress, although each reacts differently depending on factors such as the type of abuse and the identity of the abuser. Significantly, rates of sexual abuse of girls increase markedly as they reach adolescence.

Girls are also more likely than boys to be adversely affected by family factors. They are more closely bound to the family than boys and are, therefore, more susceptible to stress caused by family troubles. And, if a mother has depression, then a daughter is more likely to experience depression than a son.

Signs that a child may have depression

Children often exhibit similar symptoms to adults with depression. They become anxious, have low self-esteem, find it difficult to enjoy themselves, are socially withdrawn and are moody. But children also have other indicators. Very young children, for example, sometimes appear sad and have feelings of helplessness, while older children may complain of being unloved or receiving unfair treatment

  • Poor performance at school.

  • Change in eating habits.

  • Frequent spells of boredom.

  • Sleep problems.

  • Antisocial behaviour.

  • Running away from home.

  • Separation anxiety.

If your child has any of these symptoms, you should seek help early. There may not be a problem, but if depression is present then the earlier treatment begins, the better.

This post is by Alexander Thornton, an expert in addiction and behavioural health disorders. Currently Alex works for Life Works a residential rehabilitation centre, located in Surrey, UK.