Sugar, Spice And Worries -- Rumination Tied To Gender Differences In Depression Rates In Adolescents

August 14, 1998

Other Study Suggests High Intelligence In Girls May Be A Risk Factor For Depression In Adulthood

SAN FRANCISCO - Adolescent girls, in contrast with boys, have a lot on their minds - their looks, their friends, personal problems, romantic relationships, their families and more. On the other hand, the only thing that boys worry about more than girls is succeeding in sports or other activities. These gender differences in worrying or rumination may be one of the reasons that by age 18 females have twice the rate of depression as males. That's the finding of a survey of 615 San Francisco Bay Area adolescents conducted by psychologists Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., and Joan S. Girgus, Ph.D., and presented at the 106th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco.

It is now well documented that before the age of 11, girls and boys have more or less equal rates of depressive symptoms and depressive disorders. Between ages 11 and 15, though, girls' rates of depression rise steeply while those for boys increase only slightly. It is also well established that rumination - the passive, repetitive focus on negative emotions - is more common in adult women than men (when distressed) and appears to contribute to gender differences in adult depression. And, according to Drs. Nolen-Hoeksema and Girgus, this ruminative coping style can be seen in girls more than boys as early as 11 years of age.

Why the gender differences in rumination? One answer, the researchers note, "is that girls feel less control of their environments than boys from a very early age, and this sense of uncontrollability contributes to rumination. In essence, girls are frantically trying to understand what's going on in their lives and their own emotional distress, and this is manifested as rumination."

This was demonstrated by their survey of 615 sixth-, eighth- and tenth-graders in the San Francisco Bay Area. A questionnaire asked students to rate how much they worry about each of several issues, on a scale from 1 ("sometimes") to 3 ("always"). There were no gender differences in worries about school, getting along with parents and what to do when you are older. But there were gender differences in worry about appearance, friends, personal problems, romantic relationships, problems with family, what kind of person they are, being liked by other kids and being safe. Girls, at all three grade levels, reported worrying about those issues more than boys. The only issue that boys reported being more concerned about than girls was "sports and other activities."

Girls' concerns, the researchers say, "are excellent fodder for rumination. These are not easily solved issues. Many of these issues involve others and one's relationships with others or the problems of others that are not easy to fix and can present new challenges or concerns every day."

Presentation: "Worried Girls: Rumination and the Transition into Adolescence," by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Ph.D., University of Michigan and Joan S. Girgus, Ph.D, Princeton University, Session 1194, 1:00 PM, August 14, 1998, Moscone Center - South Building, Rooms 228/230.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

Pathways Toward And Away From Depression

In 1968, psychologists Jack and Jeanne H. Block, Ph.D., started an ongoing longitudinal study of three-year-olds drawn from two nursery schools in Berkeley, California. Study participants have been assessed at intervals ever since to track their development and, among other things, to see if adult characteristics, such as having depression, can be predicted - and possibly prevented - in childhood. Psychologist Per F. Gjerde, Ph.D., of the University of California at Santa Cruz, has analyzed data on 52 female and 49 male participants in that study, looking at how different types of personality development lead toward or away from depression in young adulthood.

Three distinct types of development emerged for each gender: one that led to high scores on a measure of depression in young adulthood, one that led to low scores on the measure of depression and one that fell in between.

The first type among the female participants followed a distinct trajectory toward being depressed in adulthood. As preschoolers, they were described as independent, intelligent, competent, confident, worthy, decisive and free of stress. At age 14, they were still independent and intelligent, but they were having fluctuating moods and concerns about self-adequacy. By age 23, signs of self-doubt combined with poor interpersonal relations and the inability to handle stress were clearly present.

In contrast, the second group of women was described as preschoolers as "self-assertive, stubborn, dominating and talkative." As adolescents they were "cheerful, gregarious, expressive and straightforward." As young adults, they were "talkative, warm, assertive, verbally fluent and humorous. Across 20 years, signs of brittleness, or lack of resiliency, are conspicuously absent."

Males on the life path leading to depression were, at age three, described as vital, active, aggressive and self-assertive. As adolescents, they were "independent, assertive, sex-typed, talkative and unable to delay gratification." As young adults, "they were unable to delay gratification, rebellious, hostile and unpredictable."

Males on the life path leading away from depression were, as preschoolers, "intelligent, expressive, vital and curious; as adolescents, intelligent, dependable and entertained high aspirations for themselves; and as young adults, they were cheerful gregarious, talkative and warm."

One factor in these data that Dr. Gjerde says will need further investigation before hard and fast conclusions can be drawn about it is the role of intelligence (as measured by IQ) in moving males and females toward or away from developing depression in adulthood. In males, lower intelligence correlated with a higher level of depression and higher intelligence correlated with a lower level depression (or it's absence). In females, however, higher intelligence correlated with higher depression, but intelligence was unrelated to the absence of depression. "Although we need to be cautious in drawing too strong conclusions from a single study," Dr. Gjerde says, "these findings do raise the interesting possibility that high IQ is a mixed blessing for girls."

Presentation: "Pathways Toward and Away From Depression: Using a Person-Centered Approach to Predict Adult Outcomes from Preschool Characteristics" by Per F. Gjerde, Ph.D., and Rosy Chang, University of California at Santa Cruz, Session 1194, 1:00 PM, August 14, 1998, Moscone Center - South Building, Rooms 228/230.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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