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How Men and Women Experience Depression Differently

by Katie Moritz
September 1, 2017 | Health

Depression affects a lot of people. In 2014, almost 16 million adults in the U.S. went through at least one depressive episode, making depression one of the country's most common mental health problems, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And though there are clear symptoms of depression, each person is affected a little differently.

Gender can factor into those differences, scientists have uncovered. Men and women coping with depression may have different experiences and may need different things to feel better.

Persistent vs. episodic

By the age of 15, girls are twice as likely to experience this mental illness as boys, due to body image struggles, hormonal fluctuations and genetic makeup. But the heightened risk isn't the only difference. And those differences carry on into adulthood.

"Men are more liable to suffer from persistent depression, whereas in women depression tends to be more episodic," said Jie-Yu Chuang, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and an author on the study, in a news release about the research. "Compared with women, depressed men are also more likely to suffer serious consequences from their depression, such as substance abuse and suicide."

In an attempt to further unravel the differences between depressed men and women, Chuang and her team showed depressed and healthy teen boys and girls happy, sad and neutral words and took images of how their brains responded.

Depression pbs rewire

The results suggested that boys and girls have different biological responses to these words. Images showed that parts of the brain linked to depression were responding differently depending on the teen's gender.

When they encountered sad words, depressed teen boys had significantly less response in certain brain regions than healthy teen boys did, the study results show.

But in comparison, when they encountered happy words, depressed teen girls experienced more brain response than healthy girls did. There was no difference between depressed and healthy teen girls' reactions when they encountered sad words. That suggests "treatment focused on positive stimuli could be a future consideration" for girls and women struggling with depression, the researchers wrote.

What does this mean for depressed adults?

More research into why these differences exist is needed. But what researchers believe is clear now is that interventions to counteract depression—crucial in the teen years when many people begin experiencing symptoms—should be targeted differently based on gender.

Depression pbs rewire

"Our finding suggests that early in adolescence, depression might affect the brain differently between boys and girls," Chuang said. "Sex-specific treatment and prevention strategies for depression should be considered early in adolescence.

"Hopefully, these early interventions could alter the disease trajectory before things get worse."

It also means that if you're a depressed adult, you might need a different treatment than another person would. It shouldn't be treated as a one-size-fits-all illness. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, talk with a medical professional about your specific situation and determine together what would most help you get healthy.

Check out these insights on mental health:

How to Help Someone Experiencing PTSD

What to Do If a Loved One is Struggling with Addiction

What Friends Need When They Lose Partners to Suicide

How Your Brain Reacts to Facebook's Logo

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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