It feels like study after study shows that teen girls are at a greater risk for depression than boys are. The latest suggests that girls who hit puberty earlier are more likely to have antisocial behaviors or be psychologically vulnerable, which is just another reason that we collectively need to pay more attention to teen girls’ mental health. Especially since these behaviors and psychological effects can last well into adulthood. It’s almost like we’re setting young women up for a lifetime of mental health struggles, simply because they might develop earlier than their peers.
According to Reuters, researchers studied data from 7,800 women who had their first period at an average age of 12. They interviewed the women four times between the ages of 16 and 28. They found that the younger a woman got her period — like say, at age 8 instead of age 10 — the more likely they were to become depressed and have more severe depressive symptoms well into their teens. They were also more likely to develop behavioral issues that led to lying, stealing, and even selling drugs.
But it’s not like just hormones are making young women break bad. It has a lot to do with how the world starts treating them.
The researchers wrote in Pediatrics that the feeling of not belonging, since their peers might be a behind them in development, can exacerbate these symptoms, which can lead to them maybe hanging out with older kids to feel more comfortable or trying things out before they’re ready.
Dr. Ellen Selkie, an adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Reuters, “From a social standpoint, girls who develop early tend to be treated like they are older than they really are. But that also means they could be involved in things that they aren’t really mature enough for.”
She added, “That sense of not really belonging can lead to mood problems and acting out — which we know can set up a pattern of behavior that leads to adult problems as well.” Basically, puberty is hard on all adolescents, but it’s particularly rough if you’re the first one in your peer group to start physically maturing, whether it’s because someone’s teasing a girl about her new boobs or just that she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about what she’s feeling and experiencing. It can be super isolating.
This new research adds some insight to a study released last spring, which found that girls experience depression way before boys do. Medical professionals have long known that there’s a gender gap when it comes to depression, since it affects women more than men. But it turns out that girls and boys break from each other earlier than previously thought. The departure happens right around puberty, at age 11. By the time teens hit 17 years old, only 13.6 percent of boys exhibit symptoms of depression or have in the past. Meanwhile, 36.1 percent of girls report being or having been depressed by that age.
Although the rate of depression in teens is well documented, there’s not a whole lot being done to tackle them. Another 2017 study found that adolescents aren’t getting enough treatment for depression, likely because teachers and adults around them just assume that it’s growing pains or a passing phase. Dr. Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and a co-author of the that study told CNN:
Another study in the U.K. found that one in four girls has depression before they hit 14 years old. “We know that teenage girls face a huge range of pressures, including stress at school, body image issues, bullying, and the pressure created by social media. Difficult experiences in childhood — including bereavement, domestic violence or neglect — can also have a serious impact, often several years down the line,” Marc Bush, the chief policy adviser at the charity Young Minds, told The Guardian.
The bottom line is that adults should be paying way more attention to kids, especially young girls, when they’re exhibiting symptoms of depression, which aren’t always that hard to spot. Brushing off a young woman’s actions as “just a phase” or assuming that being emotional is just a “girl being a girl” can really affect the rest of their life. Although hormones most definitely play a role in mental health, the way we socialize young women can make going through through those changes almost traumatic.
If the depression and behaviors they develop during puberty lasts well into their 20s, it’s worth doing something about. Although we socialize boys in a way that can become toxic, too, the research shows that its time to focus on empowering young women and letting them know that they’re not doing this all on their own.