A US-based study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at around 3.5 million people in more than 90 countries to determine the age of onset for depression. They found that two-thirds of people living with depression were women.
Based on previous research, the observers expected to find that the gender divide began as late as 15 years of age. But instead, what they concluded was that depression can strike much earlier in girls: from the age of 12.
Why is there a ‘depression gender gap’?
The research highlights puberty as a potential cause for the negative mental health experiences of young girls.
Sydney-based private practice psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip, who specialises in relationships and parenting, says this may be true, in addition to some other concerning factors.
“In my experience, girls from about 12 years start to struggle with depression due to the pressure from peers, media and social media, with the expectation on how they should be, look, behave, feel and think,” Dr Phillip says.
“A lot of it’s to do with sexual pressure, and many girls struggle feeling different or a freak because they cannot yet fit into this expectation. They then believe something is wrong with them, especially if their development is slower than peers.”
“Boys feel it differently. There is sexual pressure on them, but it comes later, around 14 or 15. Because their bodies mature later, they have that extra few years of brain maturity to allow them to process and cope. For girls, it happens so young, and their body looks mature but their brains aren’t ready.”
This divide remains in place as we grow older: in Australia, 20 per cent of women experience depression during their lifetime, compared with 12.5 per cent of men.
“In my experience, girls from about 12 years start to struggle with depression due to the pressure from peers, media and social media, with the expectation on how they should be, look, behave, feel and think."
Dr Phillip says this is because of the pressure placed on women – by themsleves and society.
“We grow up believing we need to be perfect, and then some of us become mums and it all escalates – [some of us aspire to be] attractive, patient, a good wife and mother, have a great home, work and be interested in sex. If we can’t do all of those things, then sometimes, we feel a failure.”
Of course, women who aren’t partnered or parents also experience depression, and there are biological reasons for this. Research shows that hormones, the ways we typically deal with stress, and a less active lifestyle also play a part in the gender gap.
Dr Phillip believes that all of these reasons cause women to experience depression more intensely than their male counterparts, in many (but not all) cases.
“In my experience, a woman’s depression is quite different to that of a man. There are different reasons, different origins, and different coping and processing mechanisms; so to lump everybody into the same category is difficult.”
“We grow up believing we need to be perfect, and then some of us become mums and it all escalates – [some of us aspire to be] attractive, patient, a good wife and mother, have a great home, work and be interested in sex..."
Mental health gender gaps around the world
Interestingly, another of the major discoveries of the meta-analysis is that this gap varies dependent on cultural variances.
The mental health gender divide is greater (with far more women than men being diagnosed with depression) in those countries that otherwise have better gender equity. That is, those countries which have greater wage equality, a closed educational gender gap and a higher representation of women in government, may have a larger gap in depression between the genders.
“That’s usually because when things are more equal, it means that while men feel they’re doing part of the woman’s job at home, women then feel like they’re doing the masculine role of working externally,” Dr Phillip says.
“We still, in our subconscious minds, believe men are logical, strong and less emotional, and us as women will never be male. We’re hurting ourselves through depression and anxiety because we still feel these intrinsic emotions that we don’t want to feel because we believe they’re weak.
“To be equal, we feel we need to be as ‘strong’ as the guys, but we’re completely different.”
Once again, this can intensify when a woman has been living a highly ‘masculine’ life, and then she expects something different from herself when taking a step back.
“The more equal the relationship, the greater the divide when the woman steps into that role (for example, as a nurturing mother),” explains Dr Phillip.
And all of these patterns begin so young for girls.