Depression in Teen Girls: Why Is It So Hard on Girls?
Cohen, who studies depression, says girls often do not experience the suffering that boys do.
Like young women in all other developed nations, teen girls in the U.S. are increasingly struggling with depression. A recently released study from Stanford University reported that about one in four teen girls report experiencing either full-blown depression or serious symptoms of depression—more than twice the percentage of all girls in the general population.
But exactly why does this condition affect girls especially hard?
We did a brief interview with Dr. Catherine Cohen, assistant professor at the School of Nursing at University of California, San Francisco, to get to the bottom of that question.
I’m reminded of the Wendy Greuel-led community initiative #IThinkAboutYou, which encourages children to open up about their anxieties and feelings of low self-esteem.
Yes, it’s very important to feel connected to your community, that’s part of our curriculum. “We have students talk about where they are today and how to strengthen those connections.”
The one overarching theme we want to promote is resilience, because it may be helpful for adolescents to think of themselves as survivors or dissidents. Think of this as mental resilience. I think that makes a lot of sense for what’s happening with adolescent girls and depression.
But you also talk about how much earlier than usual some girls experience depression.
The magnitude of the depression is really early. Also, sometimes what happens is girls are becoming depressed later in life when they’re 14 and 15 years old. Instead of starting to get depressed early in adolescence, depression often begins in high school.
How is this diagnosis made?
My husband trained nurses in clinical psychiatric records for psychiatrists, so that’s how he came up with the term, depressive core features syndrome.
Dr. Cohen: This condition includes symptoms that are widespread throughout the adolescent period of life and some of the psychosocial and psychological symptoms. In essence, they can be classified as features that indicate a disturbance that is progressive.
When you look at the general population, boys are much more likely to experience major depression and severe depression at ages 14 and 15. Girls are more likely to get a diagnosis of depression and to be more severely depressed in early adulthood.
Compared to young women in the general population, teenage girls are on average, when they first present to mental health clinicians, more likely to have situational depression.
This disorder is actually about 19 percent more common in women than in men. This isn’t proven to be cause and effect, but it does suggest that something about teenage girls is different.
How common is this in particular gender groups, and why does it appear that women are more likely to experience it?
That’s an interesting question. We have some evidence that it’s more prevalent in girls, but we don’t have hard numbers. The rates of depression are higher in women, but we don’t have any evidence that they’re more likely to develop it. So I think we’re probably dealing with the symptoms differently.
There’s been some progress in getting health professionals more trained in recognizing depression and seeing it more often. But don’t you think society should be doing more to help these girls than it is?
Yes, society can’t do enough. Schools are helping by offering mental health classes and setting up support networks. But we also need help in caring for adolescent girls and providing the environment that is not so extreme and focused on managing their emotions. Most adolescent girls don’t talk about their feelings or those around them as much as adults.
It’s one of the reasons the girls are struggling so much is they don’t know how to deal with those feelings. What does that mean for society as a whole?
Yes, society can be influenced by who we choose to build our influence around.
There are a lot of struggles that are external factors. Those include problems in school, poverty, day-to-day stress.
But we can also influence the girls we choose to model for. We need to focus on helping adolescent girls find ways to have healthy relationships with their bodies and not have so much focused on perfection. It’s about being kind and understanding the differences in all women.