Adolescent depression is a serious mental health problem that interferes with the ability of young people to meet their academic, economic and social potential, and is associated with a greatly increased risk of suicide and suicidal behavior. A significant proportion of depressed adolescents continue to have mental health problems and poor social outcomes in adult life. In the past 6 years, Adolescent Depression (ages 12-17) has risen 63%, 47% for boys and 65% for girls (Newport Academy, 2018, New Report Shows Depression Rates Rising). So what is the causes of this drastic increase? Why is Sally Joe always coming to school so sad, anti-social with no motivation for life? Could it be that when she was a child growing up she never received the support system she so desired, and it is just now reflecting in her every day life? Or could she be from a loving family, having been provided the picture perfect life, who’s mother and aunt have struggled with depression? This is where the long, on-going debate of Nature vs Nurture come into play. “Nature,” referring to genetics, inheritance and genes, and “Nurture,” referring to characteristics shared by ones environmental influences.
So why is is so important for researchers to try to understand if the cause of Depression is due to Nature or Nurture? Because Researchers believe that acknowledging the differences and similarities among biological and environmental, or nature and nurture, causes for Depression and conduct disorders, can create better treatment plans and long-term success for individuals living with these illnesses.
For more than a century, researchers and psychologists, such as Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and many others, have been trying to understand how people are transformed by their environment. Researchers have mainly argued whether it is in fact our environment or rather genetics, which has influenced human behavior. Researchers now do agree however, that the development of depression can not be pinpointed to just one specific cause. It can be developed through genetics, environmental influences, or a mixture of both.
It is believed by many that Mood disorders, including Adolescent Depression, tend to run in families, which suggests depression could be inherited. Those with a first-degree relative (parent, sibling) with depression are 2-4 times more likely to become depressed then those without (Parents, 2018, How Depression Affects Your Family). Many studies have been done focusing on the possibility that depression can be inherited. Some studies suggest that the neurotransmitter dopamine may play a role in the risk for depression. Early negative interpersonal environments (i.e. rejecting parents) have also been implicated. So, University of Notre Dame psychologist, Gerald Haeffel, and colleagues investigated whether a gene associated with dopamine interacted with maternal parenting style to predict episodes of depression.
The researchers studied 177 male adolescents from a juvenile detention center in Russia. These participants were ideal candidates for the study because depression rates rise so dramatically during this period in life. The researchers used a structured diagnostic interview to diagnose depression and a questionnaire to assess aspects of maternal parental rearing (i.e. physical punishment, hostility, lack of respect for the child’s point of view, and unjustified criticism in front of others). While neither factor alone predicted depression, the boys with especially rejecting mothers, and a specific form of the dopamine transporter gene were at higher risk for major depression and suicide (Haeffel, 2008). This study is among the first to support the role of a dopamine related gene in the onset of depression.
While Studies show that some people are genetically predisposed to mood disorders, such as Adolescent Depression, it is also believed that many people develop them through environmental factors. This is where researchers argue the Nurture aspect of the cause of Adolescent Depression. Environmental threats to mental health may include drugs, injuries, and nutritional deficiencies—but also consist of psycho-social conditions that relate to the individual’s perceptions of the social and physical world. Any number of circumstance, for instance, rejection, sexual abuse, a victim of a crime, or the breakup of a relationship, can produce psycho-social stress. But experts assume each of these circumstances triggers more primal reactions, such as feelings of loss or danger, which serve to push victims toward a particular mental state (Schmidt, 2007). “Feelings of pure loss might lead to depressive disorders, while feelings of pure danger might lead to anxiety disorders,” explains Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “And feelings of loss and danger might lead to both simultaneously” (Schmidt, 2007, para 5). Either alone or in combination, psycho-social and physiological stressors can interact with genetic vulnerability to alter brain chemistry and thus alter the individual’s mental health.
PTSD, or Post-traumatic stress disorder, is another factor that is believed by many to cause Adolescent Depression. Many people will experience traumatic events in their lives, including children and teens. Some researchers estimate that as many as 40% of children and adolescents will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime (Psycom, 2018, PTSD in Children and Adolescents). While most people are able to “bounce back” from the event after a few days, weeks, or months, others struggle to cope with the experience and the memory of the trauma. A child or adolescent with PTSD feels that they are unable to escape the impact of the trauma. They try to avoid people or situations that remind them of the event. Sometimes they will experience memories or “flashbacks” of the event, or they may have nightmares about it that feel very real. These constant reminders make living day-to-day life a real challenge, especially for young people who might struggle to express what they’re feeling and experiencing.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter are widely popular among Adolescents today. Experts worry that theses platforms are promoting anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. A survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health asked 14-24 year olds in the UK how social media platforms impacted their health and well-being. The survey results found these forms of social media led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor boy image and loneliness (Childmind, 2015, How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers). Not only are these teens viewing unrealistic, filtered photos of body images being praised by many, or “likes,” but they also aren’t learning real communication skills that are crucial to succeeding in life. The lack of true face-to-face friendships being made is causing many to feel lonely and depressed when off of social media.
Today it seems the debate on Nature vs Nurture has evolved into a more balanced perspective. There has been a growing acceptance of the role of both genes and the environment, and a growing focus on how both factors intersect with each other. Instead, many researchers today are interested in seeing how genes modulate environmental influences and vice versa.
After taking this class, and diving extensively into the Nature/Nurture theory, I consider both theories to play a major role in the spreading of Adolescent Depression. Having a mother that struggles with depression, and having bouts of depression myself throughout life, I have always assumed it was hereditary. At the same time, I had traumatic events as a child, so I always questioned if maybe that could be a part of the onset also.
I believe, however, as many researchers now agree, that our main concern should not be focused on how Adolescent Depression begins, but rather working on prevention so that our youth can reach their academic, economic and social potential, as well as decrease the risk of suicidal behavior. As for how we work towards prevention? I believe it starts at home with the parents/caregivers. Social media is consuming a higher percentage of our adolescents’ daily lives, and its crucial parents start taking control of their child’s social environment. Adolescents are exposed more today than ever to bullying, unrealistic body images, violent games, and so much more. We have to start communicating with our children, monitoring what they are doing in their spare time. Schools, churches need to start offering more support groups for adolescents. For Children that come from a long line of Depression/Mood disorders, parents need to become familiar with early signs to look for. Try to get them the support they need sooner then later. I believe that our children’s future is in our, the parents/caregivers/teachers/mentors/pastors hands.
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