Survey reports increase in depression among teen girls

Cause of the increase in depression a complicated issue

ERIN MULLINS, Evergreen reporter

Teen girls reported a rise in persistent sadness, seriously considering suicide and sexual assault in the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey

In 2021, 57% of females reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared to 29% of males. Thirty percent of females reported seriously considering attempting suicide and 14% reported being forced to have sex. 

The rise in negative mental health among adolescent girls is concerning to Jessica Willoughby, Edward R. Murrow College of Communications professor.

“As a parent of a five-year-old daughter, I think it’s all terrifying,” Willoughby said. “It is scary to think about just the experiences that people are having, and wanting to make sure that they have the support that they need. Ideally, we would find ways to help prevent some of that and improve the infrastructure and resources.” 

It is hard to pin any one factor on the rise in the rates of persistent sadness in girls, WSU psychology professor Chris Barry said. Just because girls reported higher levels of sexual assault does not mean we can prove that is the reason for increased sadness. 

Similarly, blaming the rise on the pandemic or social media as the sole factor does not make sense, he said. 

“The pandemic played a role and I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, in my personal opinion. But there have to be other factors at play as the trend was already going up,” Barry said. “One of the things that really gets my attention about the depression data, the suicidality data, and then the loneliness data — is that that was trending down. And then it shifted in the opposite direction.”

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey has been conducted since 1991. Adolescents reported a decrease in seriously considering attempting suicide from 1991 until 2007. Since 2007, there has been an increasing rate of teens reporting seriously considering committing suicide. 

Barry said that social sciences cannot 100% prove what is the cause of a certain social behavior. He said that a longitudinal study, where the same subjects are followed and checked up on multiple times during a long period of time, is good for trying to figure out what the likely cause of a social behavior is. 

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey was cross-sectional, meaning that the study follows a unique group of adolescents each time it is administered, he said. 

Willoughby said that the methodology in the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey was consistent with the way previous surveys had been conducted. 

“The study itself, it seemed in line with what they have done in previous years, in terms of gathering data,” she said. 

There are not nearly enough resources to address the mental health crisis youth are facing, Barry said. He said that interventions in mental health are better when they are done proactively before someone becomes severely depressed because once you are deeply depressed, it can be hard to see a way out of it.

“We can do good interventions, even if someone’s not clinically depressed or even if they’re not diagnosed,” Barry said. “Without enough access to resources, people who could benefit from interventions may not have access to them or may feel like there are too many hoops to jump through to get to them. So that’s a concern.”

Willoughby said while technology can cause potential harm to youth through fear of missing out, social comparison and cyberbullying it also has the potential to benefit youth through telehealth access, social connections across distances and being able to access beneficial information. 

It does not help problem-solving to place the blame on an individual level to those who are mentally distressed, she said. 

“I don’t think that it’s helpful to frame the problem in that way. I think that if people are experiencing distress and need mental health support, then we should try to find ways to provide that,” Willoughby said. “We know that resilience is important in terms of mental health, but I don’t think that trying to focus the blame on an individual level is the solution.”

What causes depression is varied and complicated, Barry said. There are a lot of different treatment options.

 For some, medication is a solution if the issue is neurochemical whereas therapy that focuses on relationships is a solution for those who struggle due to a breakup, he said. Cognitive therapy can be good for those with self-esteem issues and behavioral activation can be good for those struggling to get out of bed due to depression. 

While it is hard to pinpoint a cause of depression, Barry said, what can be done is understanding the nature of the depression and attaching a specific treatment plan to that nature.