Rates of major depression skyrocket among young girls as they move through the already vulnerable period of adolescence.
According to new research, about 5 percent of 12-year-old girls experienced a major depressive episode in the past year, compared with 15 percent of 15-year-old girls, a threefold increase.
Some 1.4 million girls ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
The information "is important for both prevention and treatment," said Richard McKeon, chief of the suicide prevention branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the government agency that released the report last week.
"Girls are experiencing major depressive episodes early, around the time of puberty, and this really points to the need for treatment," added Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
The report, based on a large national survey conducted annually to assess drug use and mental health, found that girls ages 12 to 17 had about triple the risk of experiencing a major depressive episode when compared with boys (12 percent vs. 4.5 percent).
It's unclear why these gender disparities exist, but they're probably due to multiple factors including biological vulnerability and, perhaps, the higher rates of sexual abuse among girls, Miller said.
"It's likely a number of different factors, including psychological, biological and social factors that may all contribute to some degree," McKeon said. "It is a time of great transition, a time of biological transition, a time of social change, so there are likely a number of different reasons."
And adolescent boys do experience depression, although not "at the same rate as adolescent girls," McKeon pointed out.
The report also revealed disparities in treatment according to age, with fewer girls ages 12 to 14 receiving treatment for major depression than girls ages 15 to 17.
This may be because major depression in younger girls may be mistaken for the typical mood swings of puberty, Miller said. When the symptoms persist, parents and teachers may start referring older girls for treatment.
A major depressive episode as defined in this report includes losing "interest and pleasure for two weeks or longer and other symptoms such as problems sleeping, eating, lower energy, difficulty concentrating," McKeon said.
The question, then, is how to differentiate typical teenage turbulence from something more serious.
"You don't want parents to overreact. On the other hand, it's important they do not dismiss those signs," McKeon said. "If a mood persists and there are other associated signs like difficulty concentrating, difficulty functioning, loss of appetite or energy, that teenager may require additional help."
Miller believes that even initial signs of moodiness should be taken seriously and referred for early intervention.
"Early intervention may not mean medication," she stressed. "It may mean counseling, making sure the kid has more social support, offering more activities within the school that are promoting health and wellness."
The National Institute of Mental Health has more on depression in adolescent girls.