Everyone remembers their teenage years as an emotional rollercoaster, riding the highest of highs — and the lowest of lows. Many people tend to think of teenagers’ emotional swings as a byproduct of hormonal changes, but a new study has found that they can actually indicate depression, and at higher rates than we thought. About a quarter of 14-year-old girls in a British study showed signs of depression, compared with around one in 10 boys, and the reasons why are fairly complex.
The study, which was managed by University College London’s Institute of Education, followed around 10,000 boys and girls who were born from 2000 to 2001 to assess how their emotional well-being changed as they grew older. At ages three, seven, 11, and 14, the parents of the children were asked to describe their children’s “emotional problems,” including “low mood, anxiety … acting out, and disobedience.” At age 14, the children themselves were asked to report on their mood, describing the extent to which they felt that they’d felt “miserable, tired, [or] lonely,” or had cried in the previous two weeks. The researchers found that between the ages of 11 to 14, the number of boys who reported (or whose parents had reported) emotional problems that coincided with depressive symptoms remained the same, about one in 10, but that the number of girls who reported experiencing these symptoms jumped by about 50 percent, from one in 10 to one in four girls.
It’s super important to stress that the jump in people reporting depressive symptoms coincided with the fact that at age 14, the girls began self-reporting on their mental health, and the researchers had input from more than just their parents. This means that it’s possible that the subjects were still experiencing these symptoms when they were younger, but that their parents weren’t aware of it. The brief accompanying the study made note of the fact that the children’s “emotional symptoms differed” depending on who reported them. The summary of the study said that “This research highlights the importance of considering young people’s views on their own mental health.” So, if it wasn’t clear already, listen to teenage girls.
“These stark findings provide evidence that mental health problems among girls rise sharply as they enter adolescence,” said Professor Emla Fitzsimons, the director of the Millennium Cohort Study, the umbrella project to which this particular survey belongs. Fitzsimons noted, however, that more research needs to be done in order to truly understand the causes of this rise, as the possible sources are diverse and complicated.
The breakdown of the data noted that the teens from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to report symptoms of depression compared with teens from more affluent backgrounds, which is consistent with how adults of different socioeconomic levels experience depression. It also showed that white and mixed-race girls were most likely to report having symptoms of depression, while Black African girls were least likely to. (Though it’s important to note the role stigma plays in under-reporting mental illness among Black people, as NAMI breaks down.) The brief also made mention of one crucial bias that played into how parents saw their children’s emotional problems versus how the teens themselves reported them: compared to the 14-year-olds’ own reports, which showed more girls than boys experiencing depressive symptoms, the parents identified “more boys with high depressive symptoms and fewer girls.”
This is a major detail that reveals how parents are vulnerable to gender bias even with their own children. Depression is twice as common in girls than in boys, as the World Health Organization notes, but stereotypes about women’s “proneness” to emotional problems can “reinforce social stigma” about mental illness, and serve as a “barrier to the accurate identification and treatment of psychological disorder.” In other words, the parents who reported their teen’s emotional problems — the mother, in nine out of 10 cases in this study — might not know to take their children’s mental health seriously, and in so doing underestimate the severity of any issues they may have. This detail underscores how crucial it is that parents take their children’s mental health concerns seriously.
Getting diagnosis and treatment early is hugely important for better outcomes for people with mental illness. According to a 2007 study in the American Journal of Managed Care, early detection can “prevent relapse and reduce the emotional and financial burden” of depression. The lead author of the UCL study, Dr. Praveetha Patalay, said that girls today face “increasing mental health difficulties,” and it's hard to disagree with that. It’s so critical that we reduce stigma around mental illness and make it as easy as possible for young girls — as well as people of all ages and genders — to get help.