Depression strikes far too often during adolescence, especially in teenage girls, a new study shows.
More than a third of all teen girls in the United States wrestle with depression by the time they turn 17, according to new data regarding the state of children’s’ mental health.
The study, which involved researchers from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, examined reports of depression that began as early as 11 years of age through as late as 17 years of age. By the time they exited adolescence, the data showed 36 percent of girls and 13.6 percent of boys endured some form of depression.
“We’re looking at patterns of how depression is occurring,” said lead author Joshua Breslau, a Pittsburgh-based researcher at the RAND Corporation. “These results are leading us earlier and earlier into childhood.”
The findings — which were based on interviews with more than 100,000 children ages 12 to 17 from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health between 2009 to 2014 — discovered that episodes of depression among young people can be linked to low grades, substance abuse, irritability, relationship problems and suicidal thoughts.
Researchers found teen depression is higher than that suggested by previous studies.
“This data shows that it’s very important that we don’t blow off symptoms of depression as if it is typical adolescence,” said study senior author Dr. Elizabeth Miller, director of the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital. “I think the message for parents is: ‘Yes mood swings can be a part of typical teen development. But if children seem more withdrawn or other symptoms, like irritability, persist for a couple of weeks, please seek medical attention.’”
She said starting with a family pediatrician is appropriate as most are well in tune in assisting with mental health issues.
“Don’t wait for things to get better,” she said. “It’s important to connect kids to support and treatment.”
The study shows that incidents of depression between girls and boys are already quite serious by age 12, signaling that the differences between the genders start much earlier in life.
“The reason ‘Why?’ is a complicated question,” Miller said. “This particular study is not getting closer to helping us understand, except to suggest that the gender gap may be present earlier than we expected.”
Another key finding in the study is that symptoms appear to be just as bad in teens with short-term depression when compared to persistent depression. This further bolsters the argument against a “wait and see” approach to treatment.
Both experts point out that treatment doesn’t always necessitate medication. In many cases, therapy can lead to recovery.
“Treatment in many cases is working with skilled therapists to help young people develop skills to regulate their emotions, understand what their triggers are for symptoms and develop more adaptive coping strategies,” Miller said.
Common depression symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies or things that brought happiness, change in sleeping patterns, lack of energy, change in appetite, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts.
In many cases, teens struggling with depression may have overlapping conditions such as anxiety.
Curtis Tilves, a University of Pittsburgh epidemiology doctoral student, has dealt with his own bouts of depression. Diagnosed two years ago with obsessive-compulsive disorder, he said he sought treatment for depression last year after having suicidal thoughts. Medication and therapy helped him take control of his mental health.
Looking back, he believes his conditions probably went undiagnosed for years.
“I started having suicidal thoughts, but I wasn’t close to carrying them out,” said Tilves, who is 25. “It was pretty much a felling that I could be gone and things would be OK. There would be fewer issues to deal with and less people to bother with my problems. But I never progressed beyond that.”
He also wondered whether an explanation for the disparity between boys and girls could be under-reporting.
Tilves, who is also a member of the Youth Research Advisory Board at Children’s Hospital, has provided feedback on Internet-based interventions to help teens in need.
“There’s still less of an opportunity for kids to know that they should go to someone for help when they are going through depression,” he said. “We need to change that. My generation grew up on the Internet and we need to find ways to better utilize it as a solution.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, email@example.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.