Rates of major depression jump dramatically among girls as they enter into their teen years, according to new research released by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Approximately 5 percent of 12-year-old girls suffered a major depressive episode in the past year, compared with 15 percent of 15-year-old girls — a threefold increase.
In the past year, 1.4 million girls aged 12 to 17 experienced a bout of major depression.
The information “is important for both prevention and treatment,” said Richard McKeon, Ph.D., chief of the suicide prevention branch at SAMHSA.
A major depressive episode is defined in this report as losing “interest and pleasure for two weeks or longer and other symptoms such as problems sleeping, eating, lower energy, difficulty concentrating,” McKeon said.
The report, based on a national annual survey designed to assess drug use and mental health, showed that girls aged 12 to 17 were three times more likely to experience a major depressive episode compared to boys (12 percent vs. 4.5 percent).
“Girls are experiencing major depressive episodes early, around the time of puberty, and this really points to the need for treatment,” added Elizabeth Miller, M.D., chief of the division of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Exactly why these gender differences exist is unclear, but it’s most likely due to multiple factors including biological vulnerability and, possibly, the higher rates of sexual abuse among girls, said Miller.
“It’s likely a number of different factors, including psychological, biological and social factors may all contribute to some degree,” McKeon said. “It is a time of great transition, a time of biological transition, a time of social change, so there are likely a number of different reasons.”
Teen boys also experience depression but not “at the same rate as adolescent girls,” McKeon pointed out.
There were also disparities in treatment according to age, with fewer girls aged 12 to 14 receiving treatment for major depression than girls aged 15 to 17.
Perhaps the symptoms of major depression in younger girls are mistaken for typical mood swings of puberty, Miller said. Then as symptoms persist, parents and teachers may start referring older girls for treatment.
So how does one differentiate typical teenage angst from something more serious?
“You don’t want parents to overreact. On the other hand, it’s important they do not dismiss those signs,” McKeon said. “If a mood persists and there are other associated signs like difficulty concentrating, difficulty functioning, loss of appetite or energy, that teenager may require additional help.”
Miller adds that even beginning signs of moodiness should be taken seriously and referred for early intervention.
“Early intervention may not mean medication,” she stressed. “It may mean counseling, making sure the kid has more social support, offering more activities within the school that are promoting health and wellness.”