Higher Depression Rates in Women a Myth?

Fran Lowry

August 29, 2013

Women have long been thought to have much higher rates of depression than men, but when alternative and traditional symptoms of depression are considered, these sex disparities disappear, new research shows.

"The sex differences framework is rooted in the idea that the construct of depression is the same in men and women and seeks to investigate sex differences in a range of related variables, including symptoms," investigators led by Lisa A. Martin, PhD, from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, write.

"Although this has been a popular approach to date, it is often critiqued for relying on oppositional binaries that understand 'male depression' only as it is contrasted with 'female depression,' which fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity that exists within these groups."

The study is published online August 28 in JAMA Psychiatry.

More Anger, Aggression in Men

The aim of the study was to explore whether sex disparities in depression rates disappear when other symptoms besides conventional depression symptoms are considered.

The researchers used data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), a nationally representative survey of the incidence and prevalence of mental disorders among English-speaking adults in the United States.

The survey included 3310 women and 2382 men. Their mean age was 45.2 years, 73.4% were non-Hispanic white, and 51.6% had some education beyond high school. The mean annual household income was $59,575. The mean income for men was $63,365, and for women, it was $49,327.

The researchers developed 2 scales. The first, the Male Symptoms Scale (MSS), included alternative male-type symptoms of depression, including irritability, anger attacks/aggression, sleep disturbance, alcohol or drug abuse, risk-taking behavior, hyperactivity, stress, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities.

The second scale, the Gender Inclusive Depression Scale (GIDS), included all of the MSS symptoms, plus 7 traditional symptoms of depression, including sad/depressed mood, loss of vitality, tiredness, ambivalence, anxiety/uneasiness, and complaintiveness or feeling pathetic.

Using the MSS scale that included alternative, male-type symptoms of depression, the researchers found a higher prevalence of depression in men (26.3%) than in women (21.9%) (P = .007).

The researchers also found that men reported significantly higher rates of anger attacks/aggression, substance abuse, and risk-taking behavior compared with women.

More Stress, Irritability in Women

Women, on the other hand, reported significantly greater rates of stress, irritability, sleep problems, and loss of interest in things they usually enjoyed, such as work, hobbies, and personal relationships.

No sex difference in the prevalence of depression as assessed by the GIDS that included alternative and traditional depression symptoms was found. According to that scale, 30.6% of men and 33.3% of women met criteria for depression.

In terms of severity of depression, the researchers found that 63.2% of men and 62.0% of women fell into the mild category, meaning that they had 1 to 4 symptoms; 28.3% of men and 28.9% of women fell into the moderate category, with 5 to 9 symptoms; and 8.5% of men and 9.1% of women fell into the severe category, with 10 to 15 symptoms. No significant sex differences were demonstrated at any severity level, they report.

"These results suggest that relying only on men's disclosure of traditional symptoms could lead to an underdiagnosis of depression in men and that clinicians should consider other clues when assessing depression in men," the authors write.

They also point out that "despite the significant findings reported in this study, there are noteworthy limitations."

One limitation was that the study did not include symptoms among men such as overworking, overexercising, changing their sexual behavior, or gambling. Also, items that assessed taking chances or reckless behavior were not linked to an emotional condition. Future studies should include items that assess the excluded behaviors, the authors suggest.

They conclude that the results of their study have the potential to bring "significant advances to the field in terms of the perception and measurement of depression. These findings could lead to important changes in the way depression is conceptualized and measured."

The investigators have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Psychiatry. Published online August 28, 2013. Full text


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