How men and women experience depression differently, and why it matters

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Moya Crockett
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It’s not exactly news that men and women experience things in different ways. While we no longer view gender in binary terms, and understand that being a man or a woman shouldn’t limit you to just one way of being, we also know that we live in a gendered world. Recognising these differences doesn’t make us sexist – and in some instances, acknowledging them can actually help both men and women lead happier, healthier lives.

According to researchers, men and women appear to suffer from depression differently, a phenomenon that is particularly striking in teenagers. By the age of 15, girls are twice as likely as boys to be depressed – something that could be attributed to everything from body image issues to hormonal fluctuations and the fact that girls are more at risk of inheriting depression.

Now, neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered that sex differences don’t just influence the risk of experiencing depression. Whether you are male or female can also affect how the disorder manifests and its consequences, suggests that mental health professionals should incorporate these differences into how they treat patients.

Dr Jie-Yu Chuang was an author on the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. She explains that while women are more likely to be depressed at a young age, their depression “tends to be more episodic” (i.e. they have bad times and good times).

Men, in contrast, “are more liable to suffer from persistent depression,” says Chuang. “Compared with women, depressed men are also more likely to suffer serious consequences from their depression, such as substance abuse and suicide.”

Wanting to discover more about gender differences in depression, Chuang and her colleagues recruited 140 male and female teenage volunteers, aged between 11 and 18. The majority of the participants were depressed, while 34 did not suffer from any mental illness.

Scientists ‘imaged’ the depressed teenagers’ brains while flashing happy, sad and neutral words onto a screen. They found that depression appeared to have different effects on the brain activity of male and female patients in certain brain regions.

“Our finding suggests that early in adolescence, depression might affect the brain differently between boys and girls,” says Chuang.

“Sex-specific treatment and prevention strategies for depression should be considered early in the adolescence,” she continues. “Hopefully, these early interventions could alter the disease trajectory before things get worse.”

Because depression is more common in girls, the researchers were not able to recruit an equal number of boys and girls for their study (they tested 106 girls and just 34 boys). As a result, Chuang says she is keen to explore the phenomenon further.

“I think it would be great to conduct a large longitudinal study addressing sex differences in depression from adolescence to adulthood,” she says.

Watch: The famous women busting the stigma around mental health

Depression isn’t the only area of mental health that appears to affect men and women differently. Women in England are also almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, while men are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed with an antisocial personality disorder.

Neither is Chuang the first scientist to suggest that mental illness should be researched and treated in a sex-specific way. A study published in the Academic Emergency Medicine journal in 2014 concluded that medics working with patients with mental illness should make “conscious use of a gender lens”, acknowledging the different ways in which sex and gender can affect people’s mental health.

Treating men and women’s depression differently so that everyone stands a better chance of enjoying good mental health? It’s hard to argue with that.

Images: iStock