For teenage girls experiencing constant social scrutiny from friends and acquaintances, development -and termination - of new relationships with boys, and new changes that occur in the body, there's a lot to worry about in life.
And that's not even including the pressure from family members to excel in school, and changes in brain chemistry that occur during adolescence.
Sometimes the stress and pressure is so overwhelming that a teenage girl shuts down, and is unable manage it all in effective ways. In many situations, this shut down leads to additional concerns as the girl exhibits symptoms of depression.
In the United States, nearly two million teenagers experience depression, with twice as many girls than boys exhibiting symptoms of the mental disorder. For parents and teachers to effectively respond to depression in girls, they must understand the symptoms.
Symptoms of Depression
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness “Women and Depression Fact Sheet,” there are a number of symptoms that might indicate depression in girls including:
- Finding little interest or pleasure in doing things.
- Feeling down and hopeless.
- Having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or oversleeping.
- Feeling too tired or having little energy.
- Experiencing a poor appetite.
- Having trouble concentrating on work or school.
Unfortunately, many of the signs of depression are similar to normal reactions teenagers exhibit when dealing with the hormonal and societal changes they experience as they transition to adulthood. A sleepy teenager doesn't necessarily mean a depressed teenager, but when these symptoms of depression persist for more than two weeks, it is a sign of underlying mental distress, according to Mental Health America.
In addition to duration, the intensity of depressive symptoms also factors into whether or not a girl is depressed. For example, a teenage girl experiencing trouble concentrating at school suddenly might feel overworked and stressed. This teen is trying her hardest to keep organized, but feels slightly overwhelmed at the amount of work.
However, a depressed teen might not wish to participate in school at all, shutting out her parents and teachers from her life. When this happens, something might be troubling her to the point where she gives up and can't focus on anything else, indicating depression.
Given the prevalence of depression in teenage girls, what kinds of issues do girls face that cause them to experience depression?
Why do Teenage Girls Feel More Depressed?
Up until adolescence, boys and girls report similar occurrences of depression. But at the onset of puberty, girls report a higher overall number of negative life events that contribute to depression. Studies have examined why this discrepancy exists between the sexes, and found life values between girls and boys shift in adolescence.
In “Sex Differences in Adolescent Depression: Stress Exposure and Reactivity Models,” published in Child Development, researchers found that interpersonal and achievement goals become different for boys and girls starting in adolescence. For more information see Adolescence Developmental Psychology.
Researchers Benjamin L. Hankin, Robin Mermelstein, and Linda Roesch found that as girls approach adolescence, they place greater value on interpersonal relationships, especially with other girls. Girls' relationships are characterized by greater levels of intimacy, social support, and self disclosure than boys.
During adolescence, peer conflict becomes a great source of stress for girls, and girls are more likely to react to stress with depression. For example, if a group of girls verbally and emotionally attacks another girl, that girl is likely to feel stress from the situation, possibly leading to depression.
Social interaction between girls is an important part of self-definition and identity. Girls frequently preoccupy themselves with self-evaluations, and peer relationships help to validate or shatter these evaluations.
For example, consider a 14-year-old girl looking at herself in the mirror. She dislikes the way puberty has changed her body, adding more weight to her hips, and changing her physical appearance. She feels overweight, but is actually a healthy, average 15-year-old girl. She might talk to her friends and mention that she’s fat to see how her friends react to the statement. Because girls are sensitive to interpersonal cues related to their self-evaluations, this teen will scrutinize her friends' responses, even if they tell her she is not overweight.
While social interactions are a large part of forming a strong identity and group of support, some girls find greater challenge than others in meeting that need. Girls who begin puberty earlier report lower levels of social support from friends, which serves as a mechanism to an increased risk of depression.
Given the already tumultuous changes girls experience through puberty, lack of social support will greatly increase stress levels during this time.
The Relation of Hormones, Stress, and Depression
Puberty is a time of constant change – not only of changing thoughts and attitudes, but of changing hormone levels. As girls approach puberty, it is the first time many of them will tackle depression. The article “Gender Differences in Depression,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, explains that hormone level changes in girls might affect how they respond to stressful situations.
In the article, author Susan Nolen-Hoeksem describes the correlation between hormone levels and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis regulates stress responses in the body by adjusting levels of certain hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol is an effective short-term response to stress in the body; however, when cortisol levels do not lower, it is linked to depression.
When a dysregulated HPA response occurs, it might react by increasing levels of corisol, affecting the way a person reacts to a stressful situation.
Nolen-Hoeksem notes that it's more common for girls to have dysregulated HPA responses to stress, which puts them at a higher risk for depression. Periods of rapid level changes of ovarian hormones, such as progesterone and oestradiol, are thought to disrupt the regulation of the HPA response, possibly leading to greater depressive responses to stress.
Girls who are predisposed to increased depression during hormonal changes might have underlying genetic links to depression. Genetics play a large role in how the brain reacts to hormonal changes in the body.
In “The Influence of Genetic Factors and Life Stress on Depression Among Adolescent Girls,” published in The Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers examined the link between genetics, life events, and depression in 182 prepubertal and 314 pubertal twin girls, and found genetics to influence the onset and duration of depression.
Researchers Judy Silberg and others found that genetics influence the onset of depression, in addition to how a girl will respond to negative life events, such as a breakup.
Additionally, genetic factors were attributed to experiencing more negative events. A girl with a familial history of depression is more likely to experience serious life events like failing classes, experiencing a dramatic breakup, or having other interpersonal challenges.
Combating depression in teenagers – especially girls – requires parents, teachers, and counselors to know the symptoms and reasons teens become depressed. Severe depression is often treated with psychotherapy, as psychologists and counselors work with girls to develop coping habits for depression.
The prevalence of teen depression indicates a greater need for counselors and psychologists who specialize in treating teenagers. For more information on a career in mental health counseling, request information from schools specializing in mental health counseling.