Over 300 million individuals around the world have depression. Sometimes co-occurring with other mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety, bipolar disorder, substance abuse), depression is characterized by low mood, loss of interest and pleasure, and major changes to sleep and appetite, among other potential symptoms. The type and timing of depressive symptoms depend on many factors, one of which is gender.
A recent study of gender differences in depression, published in the April issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, describes depressive symptom trajectories in males and females from late childhood to adolescence and young adulthood.1 Previous research has found similar rates of depression in both male and female genders prior to puberty—though some findings suggest boys may be slightly more likely than girls to experience depression. During adolescence, however, the rates diverge. In this period, young women are almost twice as likely to be depressed as young men; women will continue to have a higher likelihood of meeting the criteria for depression in their adult years.2
The recent study examined how depressive symptom trajectories diverge in adolescence; such information can be helpful in informing healthcare providers, parents, and teenagers themselves about the potential challenges of this developmental period.
Data for the present investigation came from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the Bristol area in England, which—beginning in the 1990s and with an initial cohort of almost 14.000 infants—has been regularly collecting data on the participating children and their parents (using questionnaires and clinical visits).
The authors used eight waves of data from ALSPAC. Participants in these waves were between ages 11 and 22 years. Overall, researchers analyzed 40,000 measurements—from 9,300 participants for whom data on sex and at least one assessment of depressive symptoms was available.
Depressive symptoms were evaluated using a measure called the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ). The SMFQ contains 13 items which assess an individual’s mood in the past two weeks. Sample items include “I felt lonely” and “I felt miserable or unhappy.”3
Based on the results of multilevel growth-curve modeling, researchers observed significantly different population-averaged trajectories of depressive symptoms for males and females, as shown in the figure below.
As you see from the graph, except between ages 10 and 11 years, female adolescents had higher depressive symptoms than males.
The maximum level of depressive symptoms occurred at age 20.4 years for males and age 19.6 years for females. The fastest increase in depressive symptoms occurred at age 16.4 years for males and 13.5 years for females.
Why Trajectories Differ
As we have seen, the trajectory of depressive symptoms increase for both genders during adolescence. Why?
Perhaps because teenagers face numerous changes during this developmental period (e.g., puberty, school transition, forming friendships). What is less clear is why depressive symptoms in young men and women follow different trajectories, with women experiencing more depressive symptoms and an earlier peak.
One possible explanation for this difference is the earlier puberty in females compared to males. For instance, previous research has shown that early age of menarche (first menstrual cycle) is associated with greater depressive symptoms:
“Hormonal changes and transformations in brain structure and function foster a disjuncture between systems involved in the regulation of arousal and emotion and those involved in the cognitive modulation of behavior,” with the imbalance between emotion regulation and stress reactivity creating a “fertile ground for emotional arousal” (p. 1430-1).4
This increased reactivity and stressor responsiveness in adolescent girls may result in greater anxiety and depressive symptoms. Therefore, early puberty is linked to an “earlier age of higher depressive symptoms,” and this might “set an individual up for a higher trajectory which takes longer to recover from. This could explain why females have higher trajectories compared to males” (p. 823).1
What are the implications of the different trajectories of depressive symptoms in male and female adolescents? It is important to identify depression early, and interventions targeting female teenagers may need to start earlier than those targeting males. Parents, schools, and clinical services need to be informed that on average, female adolescents—compared to male adolescents—experience not only a more rapid increase in depressive symptoms at an earlier age but also more depressive symptoms overall. Awareness and earlier interventions may help improve depressive symptoms and reduce the likelihood of depression later in life.
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1. Kwong, A. S. F., Manley, D., Timpson, N. J., Pearson, R. M., Heron, J., Sallis, H.,...Leckie, G. (2019). Identifying critical points of trajectories of depressive symptoms from childhood to young adulthood. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48, 815-827.
2. Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Girgus, J. S. (1994). The emergence of gender differences in depression during adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 424–443.
3. Angold, A., Costello, E. J., Messer, S. C., & Pickles, A. (1995). Development of a short questionnaire for use in epidemiological studies of depression in children and adolescents. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 5(4), 237–249.
4. Rudolph, K. D., Troop-Gordon, W., Lambert, S. F., & Natsuaki, M. N. (2014). Long-term consequences of pubertal timing for youth depression: Identifying personal and contextual pathways of risk. Development and Psychopathology, 26, 1423-1444.