*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on The Washington Post.
A large new study out this week contains some alarming data about the state of children’s mental health in the United States, finding that depression in many children appears to start as early as age 11. By the time they hit age 17, the analysis found, 13.6 percent of boys and a staggering 36.1 percent of girls have been or are depressed.
These numbers are significantly higher than previous estimates. Understanding the risk of depression is critically important because of the close link between depressive episodes and serious issues with school, relationships and suicide.
While researchers have long known about the gender gap in depression, with more adult women than men suffering from the condition, the new numbers show that whatever divergent paths boys and girls take happens even earlier than expected.
Published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the study was based on data compiled from in-person interviews with more than 100,000 children who participated in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health from 2009 to 2014. The NSDUH is an annual survey on a representative sample of the U.S. population.
The idea that children can be depressed is something that has only been recently accepted by psychologists. As recently as the 1980s, adolescents were considered too developmentally immature to be able to experience such a grown-up affliction. Today most scientists recognize that children as young as 4 or 5 years of age can be depressed.
There are numerous theories about why boys develop differently than girls from a mental health perspective. While depression may be more common among girls, other conditions are more common among boys, such as conduct problems, aggression and substance abuse. One way of explaining this pattern involves a possible single underlying phenomenon, with different people branching off to develop different disorders because of social influences. There’s also the possibility it may be connected to biological differences, perhaps involving changes in hormones or other ways that are distinct to how girls are socialized.