In any given year, 10 to 14 million people experience a clinical depression; women 18 to 45 years of age account for the largest proportion of this group. Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that is much more than temporarily feeling sad or blue. It involves disturbances in mood, concentration, sleep, activity level, interests, appetite, and social behavior. Clinical depression can develop in anyone, regardless of race, culture, social class, age, or gender. However, across virtually all cultures and socioeconomic classes, women are more likely than men are to experience depression.
In any given year, 10 to 14 million people experience a clinical depression; women 18 to 45 years of age account for the largest proportion of this group. Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that is much more than temporarily feeling sad or blue. It involves disturbances in mood, concentration, sleep, activity level, interests, appetite, and social behavior. Clinical depression can develop in anyone, regardless of race, culture, social class, age, or gender. However, across virtually all cultures and socioeconomic classes, women are more likely than men are to experience depression. Although depression is highly treatable, it is frequently a life-long condition in which periods of wellness alternate with recurrences of illness. Sixty percent of depressed individuals will experience at least a second episode of depression. Of these individuals, 75% to 80% will experience recurrent depression. With each subsequent episode, recurrence risk increases and probability of full remission decreases.
Clinical depression affects two to three times as many women as men, both in the U.S. and in many societies around the world. It is estimated that one out of every eight women will suffer from clinical depression in her lifetime. Women also experience higher rates of seasonal affective disorder and dysthymia (chronic depression) than men. While the rate of bipolar disorder (manic depression) is similar in men and women, women have higher rates of the depressed phase of manic depression and women are three times more likely to experience rapid-cycling bipolar disorder.
What causes the higher rate of depression in women?
The explanation for the gender gap in susceptibility to depression most probably lies in a combination of biological, genetic, psychological, and social factors.
There appear to be important links between mood changes and reproductive health events. Gender differences in rates of depression emerge when females enter puberty and remain high throughout the childbearing years and into late middle age. Hormonal factors seem to play a role in some of the mood disturbance experienced by women. Twenty to 40 percent of menstruating women experience premenstrual mood and behavioral changes. Approximately 2 to 10 percent of women experience Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a severe form of premenstrual syndrome that is characterized by severely impairing behavior and mood changes. As many as 10 percent to 15 percent of women experience a clinical depression during pregnancy or after the birth of a baby. There also appears to be an increase in depression during the perimenopausal period, but after menopause, this does not appear to be the case. Differences in thyroid function between men and women may also contribute to the gender difference in the prevalence of mood disorders.
Another biological factor that may contribute to gender differences in depression can be linked to circadian rhythm patterns, the complex system that regulates sleep and activity over each 24-hour period. Depressed women report more hypersomnia (excessive sleeping) than do men. Gender differences in the activity of neurotransmitters including serotonin and the effects of estrogen on theses neurotransmitters may also be linked to the gender disparity in rates of depression.
Some forms of depression run in families. There is a 25 percent rate of depression in the first-degree relatives (mother, father, siblings) of people with depression and greater prevalence of the illness in first-degree and second-degree female relatives. But depression also occurs in people who have no family history of the disease. The genetic contribution to risk for depression is not something specific to women.
Men and women from families with depression are both at greater risk than those who come from families with no depression.
Psychosocial factors that may contribute to women’s increased vulnerability to depression include the stress of multiple work and family responsibilities, sexual and physical abuse, sexual discrimination, lack of social supports, traumatic life experiences, and poverty.
Several studies of depression among college students and within the Amish community of eastern Pennsylvania have shown no gender difference in the rates of depression, suggesting that greater social equality may lead to more equal rates of depression in men and women.
Psychological make-up plays an important role in one’s vulnerability to depression as well. Thus, individuals with low self-esteem, pessimistic views, and tendencies towards stress are prone to clinical depression.
Studies also indicate that sexual and physical abuse are major risk factors for depression. Women are twice as likely as men to have experienced sexual abuse. A recent study found that three out of five of the women diagnosed with depressive illnesses had been victims of abuse. In one major study, 100 percent of women who had experienced severe childhood sexual abuse developed depression later in life.
Does pregnancy influence depression?
Although it once was thought that women experienced low rates of mental illness during pregnancy, recent research reveals that over 10% of pregnant women and approximately 15% of postpartum women experience depression. As many as 80 percent of women experience the “postpartum blues,” a brief period of mood symptoms that is considered normal following childbirth. However, the related hormonal and biological changes associated with pregnancy or giving birth may initiate a clinical depression. Or, the changes in lifestyle associated with caring for a young infant may constitute a set of stressors that have mental health consequences for the mother. There is a three-fold increase in risk for depression during or following a pregnancy among women with a history of mood disorders. Once a woman has experienced a postpartum depression, her risk of having another reaches 70 percent.
One woman in a thousand experiences a postpartum psychosis-a medical emergency in which the woman may inflict harm upon herself and/or her baby. The first episode of bipolar disorder in women frequently occurs following the birth of a child.
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