New government data shines a light on just how many pre-teen and teenage girls may grapple with depression, finding that adolescent girls suffer from depression at a rate nearly three times that of boys their age.
And between the ages of 12 and 15, the percentage of girls experiencing depression triples, according to new figures released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
"The take-home here is that we need to look for depression in girls starting earlier," said Tami Benton, executive director of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral science at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who reviewed the new data brief.
"Parents need to listen to their kids when they talk about things like bullying. We need to listen when our kids tell us they're feeling down or sad, or if we see a decline in school functioning, appetite and social functioning," she added.
The new data came from the 2008 to 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which rely on questionnaires and face-to-face surveys. Between the ages of 12 and 15, the percentage of girls who reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year jumped from 5 to 15 percent respectively.
A depressive episode was defined as a period of two weeks or longer during which teens experienced a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure, along with other changes in day-to-day functioning, like a loss of sleep or appetite or changes in concentration.
The figures also suggest that an average of 1.4 million girls between ages 12 and 17 experienced one of those episodes within the last year -- a rate that is nearly three times that of their male peers.
Experts do not yet have a complete understanding of why there are such marked differences in rates of depression among boys and girls.
Before puberty, boys and girls typically experience depression at the same frequency. But when puberty begins, girls may experience specific biological and hormonal changes that raise their risk for depression.
"The other thing that happens is that there are many psychosocial factors," Benton explained. "There's greater demand for peer interaction. There's peer pressure."
Though she acknowledged that those stressors also affect boys, Benton said that social pressures can be much higher on girls. The physical and hormonal changes taking place at the same time those pressures kick in could make females more vulnerable.
Increased psychosocial pressures might also help explain why there is a marked jump in depression rates among girls between the ages of 12 and 15, Benton said. Another possibility, she said, is that parents and doctors are not paying close attention to girls' depressive symptoms until they are a little bit older, say 15 or 16.
"That's important," she said, cautioning that the new figures are preliminary and need to be confirmed. "If in fact this data is true, then it means that we need to be targeting our interventions much earlier, and starting to work with [our girls] much earlier."
In a statement, SAMSHA Administrator Pamela Hyde said it was "crucial" that teenage girls be given assistance with coping skills and social support systems to help avoid the onset of depression. Hyde called any efforts to provide this support a "sound investment in girls' health and well-being and in our nation's future."
Treatment options for depression in adolescents are similar to those for adults, including cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of psychotherapy. In some cases, antidepressants are also prescribed: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.6 percent of girls ages 12 to 17 take antidepressants, as well as 2.8 percent of boys in that age group.