Discouragement is not a thing of maturity. Far from it, in recent decades we have seen the risk of depression increase at increasingly younger ages. Adolescence is a period of special vulnerability and, therefore, it is necessary to investigate and prevent emotional problems from this evolutionary period.
Along these lines, we recently published a study aimed at analyzing the relationship between sex and age with depressive symptoms in adolescents. The participants were 1,212 adolescents, from the 1st (53.9%) and 2nd (46.1%) years of Compulsory Secondary Education, belonging to seven educational centers in the Region of Murcia (Spain). 104 mothers and fathers also participated.
We reached two fundamental conclusions: that adolescent girls present more depressive symptoms than boys, and that from the age of 12 there is a significant increase in said symptoms.
More rumination and hopeless thoughts in girls
It is not the first time that a study suggests that adolescent girls present more symptoms of depression than boys. But why is it?
It has been suggested that a more pessimistic and hopeless style of thinking could explain the difference. The data indicate that adolescent boys who adopt this type of attitude in the face of very adverse situations may end up developing depression. However, a girl who has a hopeless thinking style can become depressed even without a stressful negative event (or due to objectively mild events).
Thinking over negative and obsessive thoughts, over and over again, is what in psychology is called rumination. And it has been suggested that it could be the cause of the appearance of a higher percentage of depression in girls. On the contrary, in boys it is usually not the cause, but a consequence of depression. This difference should be taken into account in the design of depression prevention programs in adolescents.
Another differential factor identified by researchers has to do with exposure to depressed peers. It has been proven that the exposure of adolescent girls to depressed peers promotes their own depression in adulthood, in addition to negatively affecting the probability of attending university and working. It is even associated with a reduction in the income of adult women. In boys, however, no trace of this effect was found.
Different brains, different responses
One of the big mistakes when addressing depression is assuming that the brains of men and women work the same. Quite the opposite: there are sexual differences in the neurobiological processes behind aspects of depression such as fear processing, arousal, social avoidance or learned helplessness – the feeling that we cannot do anything to change the situation and feel helpless. due to previous experiences of uncontrollable situations, only present in men.
Another 2022 study detected that in the brains of depressed men there was a loss of claudin-5 protein in the so-called nucleus accumbens, a brain structure related to pleasure and reward. In the case of women, this loss of claudin-5 occurred in another area of the brain; specifically in the prefrontal cortex, involved in mood regulation, decision making, planning, motivation and self-perception, among other functions.
Adolescents are more vulnerable
There is no doubt that the transition to adolescence is a developmental period particularly vulnerable to depression. According to our study, the optimal time to carry out interventions to prevent emotional problems and promote mental health and psychological well-being would be 12 years of age. Because it is from this age onwards that there is a significant increase in depressive symptoms.
Along the same lines, other recent research found that around the age of 13, symptoms of depression increase significantly, and this increase is usually greater in girls.
Another interesting finding seems to indicate that early trauma is a dominant factor that overshadows more recent life events at the onset of depression among adolescents. Intervening early in these cases is important, especially considering that depression is one of the most important risk factors for suicide.
The opinion of fathers, mothers and teachers
A strong point of the study is that not only was depressive symptomatology assessed with adolescents’ self-reports, but mothers and fathers were also asked to evaluate the mood they observed in their children. In future studies it would be interesting to also include the teachers’ perspective.
Finally, it should be noted that there are effective interventions to treat and prevent depression in adolescents and young people that should be offered to the population along with the implementation of gender-sensitive policies to promote gender equality in health.
This article has been published in ‘The conversation‘.
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