The rate of Major Depressive Disorder in teenage girls jumped drastically between 2005 and 2014 to record high numbers: in girls, it increased from 13% to 17%; in boys, the increase was much smaller, going from 4% to 6%. In total, another study found that about 14% of boys and 36% of girls are depressed or have been seriously depressed by the age of 17. Although the rate of depression in adult women is consistently higher than in men, the gender gap in teenagers has grown to new heights.
These are shocking differences not to ignore. What can you do in just a few easy steps to help reverse these unhealthy trends? Read on to find out.
What Caused this Drastic Increase?
Researchers don’t know exactly what caused this rapid increase in depression amongst teen girls. In my professional opinion as a psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and author, I suspect that a huge contributing factor is how our society values women – or doesn’t. These shocking numbers are a wake-up call for all of us, whether you are a woman or care for women in your life.
Why should you care?
Most of us don’t realize how influential and dangerous media images have become in women’s lives. We already know that our culture values a woman by her attractiveness and that women feel pressured to be sexy and act sexually. 90% of women are unhappy with their looks, weight discrimination is rampant, and now 36% of girls under 17 have experienced severe depression. The link between sexist cultural pressures and depression in women and girls seems strong.
What Causes Depression in Teen Girls?
The teenage years can often be a difficult, confusing period. As a result, more than one factor contributes to the onset of depression in teenage girls:
During this uncertain time, teens are particularly susceptible to unhealthy cultural attitudes and norms that can seriously affect the way they see themselves. It’s only natural – parts of a teenager’s brain are not fully developed until they are in their twenties, making it harder for them to manage strong emotions and motivations. Hormonal factors may also be involved.
The American Psychological Association strongly warned us about the dangers that sexualized images pose to girls’ self-image and development – back in 2007! They linked this kind of sexualization of the media with common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depressed mood or depression. More recent research links self-objectification with depression as well, finding that girls as young as 6 to 11 years old are affected.
Fat-shaming, a very common form of bullying, is more prevalent among teen girls than boys. As hard as fat-shaming is for adult women, it can be much worse for teenagers who are that much more vulnerable to the opinions of others and outside pressures to conform. Experiencing fat-shaming increases the chances of unhealthy eating behaviors and decreases the odds of exercising. It is a risk factor for depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction. Bullying has even been associated with suicidal behavior in teens.
Empathy and Sensitivity
Research has also found that college students are now 40% less empathic than they were in the past, so teenage girls are probably facing even harsher bullying and less compassion now than ever before. Pair that with girls’ naturally higher levels of emotional sensitivity and the results can be heartbreaking. In fact, “low empathy is associated with criminal behavior, violence, sexual offenses, aggression when drunk, and other antisocial behaviors,” studies have found. All these influences can cause the unhealthy cultural pressures on women to spread like wildfire, increasing the likelihood of depression.
How Does Our Sexualized Media Affect You?
Women and girls struggle with many confusing messages in our sexualized culture. On screens and in magazines, for example, actresses and models portray unrealistic and unattainable beauty ideals. Is it a surprise that TV and movie producers are mostly men (who want to make money – and sex sells)? The way people use social media just reinforces these messages, allowing many of us to depend on post-likes and followers to gain confidence in ourselves.
Who can help wondering “what’s wrong with me that I don’t look like that?” when you feel you’re competing with a steady stream of impossibly beautiful faces and bodies?
Women’s romantic relationships are suffering as well. Take casual sex for example: we see media images of couples hopping into bed after just meeting while we are told that ‘modern women’ have more power because we can ask men out and have casual sex. The problem is that in reality, casual sex often just makes it easier for men to take women for granted and treat them badly. Cultural pressures like the “Three-Date Rule” limit a woman’s choices and give power to the man. Casual sex doesn’t work for everyone – and that’s okay.
Yet, if things don’t go as smoothly as planned, women are the ones left wondering, “What’s wrong with me for getting attached to him so quickly?”
I’m here to tell you that it’s normal and healthy to get attached. Human beings are built for attachment.
Women are all different. We are free to make our own choices about what works for us as individuals. It’s important to constantly remind ourselves that we have many more options than those few stereotypes of women we see over and over again in the media.
You Can Be the Revolution
Real self-empowerment is doing what’s best for you and having the courage to stand up for yourself. Pressuring yourself and other women to conform to unhealthy beauty ideals just wrecks our individual self-confidence and makes it impossible to support one another. Having power in your relationships means making sure you are being treated well by your partner, whatever that looks like for you.
When we prioritize our inner beauty, we can find strength together as a sisterhood. Join me in a revolution to stand up to these harmful cultural forces.
- You can take a stand against the tyranny of beauty.
- You can combat cultural pressures that limit our freedom as women to make the choices that are the best for us.
- You can accept and love yourself and others more readily, just the way you are.
We have the opportunity to help teens and adults by creating a massive change in these unhealthy cultural trends. Every little thing you do can make a big difference. Simply discussing these issues with your friends and family can begin to increase awareness and start the process of change. Becoming more aware of these outside influences helps to free us all from their spell.
If you want to find out how to stop sabotaging your love life and start following your inner compass instead of unhealthy cultural norms, read my book Be Your Own Brand of Sexy: A New Sexual Revolution for Women. Become your own Brand of Sexy with the support and sisterhood of our community here and on Facebook.