Symptoms of Depression in Adolescents: Gender Differences in Coping and Symptomology
Published on 31st October, 2017 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Coping and stress
Coping can be defined as the strategies of an individual to overcome personal or interpersonal problems, so as to minimize the stress experienced. Hundreds of coping strategies exist, and psychologists have invested much effort in understanding how adaptive or maldaptive coping strategies may protect or predispose individuals to developing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Although psychologists in the present day no longer prescribe to the term coined by the first president of the American Psychological Association (APA), G. Stanley Hall, that adolescence is a period of “storm and stress”, much effort has been invested into understanding the negative affect often experienced by adolescents. This negative affect may be intense and frequent for some adolescents given the biological, cognitive, emotional and social turbulences that they encounter before entering adulthood.
Depression in adolescents
The research paper discussed in this article by Malooly, Flannery and Ohannessian (2017) seeks to understand gender differences in depressive symptoms of adolescents, adopting a different approach in studying the effectiveness of coping strategies as a protective factor from depression.
Categories of coping strategies
Most research on coping adopt a binary approach in studying differences in coping strategies. Classifying coping strategies as either emotion-focused (whether the purpose is to reduce intensity of negative emotions) or problem-focused (whether the purpose is to eliminate the stressor) is a common way of exploring them. Another common distinction often made in psychological research is between active (i.e. responding in order to change the stressor, or at least how one thinks about it) and avoidant coping strategies (i.e. trying to escape from the problem). The authors pointed out that these commonly used distinctions are simplistic, and does not provide a holistic picture in understanding coping. For example, it is difficult to categorize the response of turning to a friend for support as either emotion-focused or problem-focused.
Therefore, the authors of this study identified eight individual coping strategies to understand how preferences to use these strategies between boys and girls predicts symptoms of depression over a three-year period. The eight coping strategies studied were:
- Venting of emotions
- Seeking advice from others
- Active coping
- Coping through religion
- Emotional social support
905 adolescents, aged 15-17 (54% girls) participated in the study. Data on the participants’ coping preferences, and depressive symptoms were collected using self-report measures. The same procedure was repeated yearly for another two years (Time 2 and Time 3).
Path analysis was used to understand how gender at Time 1, coping strategies at Time 2, and the experience of symptoms of depression at Time 3. Symptoms of depression experienced at Time 1 was factored in as a covariate in the analysis.
Gender differences in depression and coping
The results indicated that girls were significantly more likely than boys to experience symptoms of depression, consistent with previous research on gender differences in depressive symptoms. Gender differences in coping strategies also existed in the present study with the girls significantly more likely than boys to use the following coping strategies: venting of emotions, seeking advice from others, active coping, coping through religion, emotional social support, and planning.
Two coping strategies, venting of emotions and seeking advice from others, were found to be mediating factors in the relationship between gender and depressive symptoms. Girls were more likely than boys to vent their emotions, and venting of emotions were associated with higher levels depressive symptoms. On the other hand, seeking advice from others, which was also a strategy more likely to be used by girls, led to a reduction of depressive symptom experienced.
Understanding coping in treating depression
This study sheds light to professionals in the helping field, such as counselors and clinical psychologists providing treatment for depression, on the importance of coping as a protective factor from depressive symptoms. Although both venting of emotions and seeking advice involves sharing our thoughts with another person, their impact on depressive symptoms work in opposite directions.
Seeking advice from someone may be useful in providing the distressed individual with clarity and belief that he is able to move forward. Previous research has also highlighted that seeking advice reduces the psychological and biological responses to stress (Taylor, Welch, Kim & Sherman, 2007). One the other hand, venting of emotions may lead to individual to continue being stuck with the situation, while exacerbating the negative emotions, and thus spiraling down towards depressive symptoms.
Further questions also arise based on the results of this study. Firstly, what other gender differences exist which predispose girls to experience higher levels of depressive symptoms. Given that girls are more likely to utilize both seeking advice and venting of emotions as coping strategies, these two factors alone would not explain the gender differences. Secondly, is having a wider range of coping strategies less effective in protecting one from depression?
Malooly, A. M., Flannery, K. M., & Ohannessian, C. M. (2017). Coping mediates the association between gender and depressive symptomatology in adolescence. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41(2), 185-197.
Taylor, S. E., Welch, W. T., Kim, H. S., & Sherman, D. K. (2007). Cultural differences in the impact of social support on psychological and biological stress responses. Psychological Science, 18(9), 831-837.