Teen Depression On The Rise, Particularly in Girls

By Dorri Olds 11/18/16

Young adults ages 12 to 20 account for the biggest increase in depression, according to a new study.

Teen Depression On The Rise, Particularly in Girls

Depression is increasing in teenagers and young adults in the U.S., says a new study. The significant finding is the much higher number of females who are depressed compared to males.

The study was authored by Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, a professor in the department of mental health at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. It is published in the December issue of the Pediatrics journal.

The study examined trends of national major depressive episodes (MDEs) in adolescents and young adults over a one-year period. It also measured trends in treatment for depression between the years 2005 and 2014. 

The report states, “Data were drawn from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health for 2005 to 2014, which are annual cross-sectional surveys of the U.S. general population.”

Of the 172,495 teenage participants (ages 12–17), depression increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014. In the group of 178,755 young adult participants (ages 18–25) depression increased from 8.8% in 2005 to 9.6% in 2014. The findings showed that the biggest increase happened in the ages 12 to 20.

Substance use disorder and socio-demographic factors were taken into account and Dr. Mojtabai made sure to adjust those numbers in order to measure the trends accurately. Prescription medication and inpatient hospitalizations increased among the teenagers but the study showed a growing number of young people with untreated depression.

All participants were asked if they’d received treatment for emotional or behavioral issues that were not due to drugs—including marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin, inhalants and misuse of painkillers, sedatives, tranquilizers, and stimulants, or alcohol. 

Dr. Mojtabai hypothesized on why depression was higher for teen girls. He suggested that perhaps cyberbullying was higher for girls than it was for boys because girls use social media and text more often than boys.

However, that seems like a big assumption. The Fix spoke with Russell D. Bernstein of Bully Talks who said, “Research affirms that physical bullying is more commonplace in males while social and emotional bullying more so in females. Cyberbullying seems to be on an even battleground. This problem is clear even in middle school students, as my talks and polls at middle schools have shown. Cyberbullying—due in part to its anonymity and lack of face-to-face—is equal in both its severity and gender.”

One hypothesis that wasn’t mentioned or explored in Dr. Mojtabai’s study was sexual assault. There is a higher number of rapes among females and that would surely affect depression rates.

The Fix spoke to Apryl Pooley, a neuroscientist and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir, who said, “There are at least a few things at play here. First, depression is twice as common in females than males. This has been an established phenomenon for years. Some researchers and clinicians suggest that this is because women seek help more often than men and are thus diagnosed more than men, but I don’t think this sufficiently describes the differences in depression.

"There is evidence that men and women respond to things like stress and trauma differently in a biological way—women’s brains tend to respond in a way that manifests in anxiety and depressive symptoms (i.e. internalizing) and men tend to respond in a way that manifests in more aggression, conduct disorder, and substance abuse (i.e. externalizing). Additionally, women as a whole experience more sexual trauma, domestic/relationship abuse, and societal oppression than men, all of which can lead to mental health problems and that refers to the part about women being exposed to more 'depression risk factors.'"

She went on to say that even if cyberbullying was equal between the sexes, the type of bullying that girls experience may be more likely to be sexual harassment. "We know that trauma such as sexual assault and harassment can lead to depression and anxiety symptoms in females more often than it does in males, who tend to show more externalizing symptoms.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.