Can Puberty Cause Depression

Can Puberty Cause Depression? Revealing the Dark Side of Teenage in 2023

Writen By: Maria Zia
Reviewed By: Huma Khan
Publish Date: October 3, 2023

Think about puberty as the start of something new, like a rollercoaster ride for your feelings. It’s a time when you’re finding out more about yourself, but it can also feel like a bumpy and uncertain journey. Your emotions are at their peak, and your body is changing too. You might feel pressure to fit into new roles and handle different relationships, which can be tough. All these intense feelings and struggles make you wonder: Can puberty cause depression? It’s not a simple yes or no answer; it’s a bit of a puzzle.

Answering this question matters a lot. Feeling sad or lonely during puberty is normal, but when it turns into depression, that’s a different story and needs attention. What makes it tricky is that depression doesn’t have one clear cause. It’s like a mix of things—stuff around us, our genes, how our bodies work (like those hormone changes during puberty), and how we handle our feelings. Puberty can be a wild ride, with emotions all over the place and sometimes conflicts in relationships. So, can we say puberty causes depression with all these factors in play?

Today, we are diving into a big question: Can puberty cause depression? It’s a complex one, so let’s unravel it together. We’ll explore if there’s a link between puberty and depression, and if there is, is it a direct connection, or are there other things in the mix? If there are other factors, what could they be? By the end of this blog, we’ll have a clearer picture of what puberty really is, what changes it brings, and whether those changes can lead to emotional struggles, including depression. Plus, we’ll talk about how to cope with these struggles and some useful tips for parents, so stick around to find out more.

What is Puberty?

Puberty is not a single or sudden change. It is a series of biological, physical, and emotional changes that go on for years. We cannot mark the exact beginning and end of puberty, but we can tell when a boy or girl is going through it. The ages vary depending on various factors, but generally, it starts around 8–13 years for girls, and for boys, it starts between 9 and 14 years.

Physical Changes in Puberty

Some of the most prominent physical changes that occur during puberty include:

  • Growth spurts
  • Changes in height and weight
  • Increase in muscle mass
  • Appearance of armpit and pubic hair
  • Changes in voice (more prominent in males)
  • Growth and changes in genitals

These are some of the changes that occur in both genders. Changes that are exclusive to boys or girls include:

For girls:

  • Widening of hips
  • Menarche (menstruation)
  • Breast development
  • Ovulation

For boys:

  • Growth of facial hairs
  • Enlargement/prominence of Adam’s apple

These are the changes that are apparent, unlike hormonal changes that are not visible externally, but they are the drivers behind all the major changes that are occurring on the outside.

Hormonal Changes in Puberty

Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the body. During puberty, the levels of hormones change dramatically, so much so that it wouldn’t be wrong to say that puberty is a series of hormone-driven changes. Like many processes, this one starts with the brain when the hypothalamus starts releasing the Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH) to signal the anterior pituitary gland to release Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH). These hormones then act on the gonads to produce sex hormones. (Testosterone, estrogens and progesterone)

Androgens are another class of hormones produced by the adrenal gland (in both genders), in testes (only for boys), and in the ovaries (only for girls).

There might be a misconception that a particular hormone is only produced in one sex but not in the other, but this is not the case. Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen are present in both males and females, but their levels are dramatically different.

Some of the major hormone-driven changes in females are:

  • Development of secondary sex characteristics, maturation of breasts, and regulation of menstrual cycle are driven by estrogen
  • Progesterone, which mainly prepares the uterus for pregnancy.
  • Estradiol is a class of estrogen whose main function is to maintain the reproductive organs.

Some of the major hormone-driven changes in males are:

  • Testosterone is the primary male reproductive hormone that performs multiple functions, including the regulation of libido, the production of sperm, and increasing muscle mass and strength.

Puberty and Mental Health

Now that we have a general understanding of what puberty is and what changes occur during the entire process, we can now explore our primary concern: Can puberty cause depression? But before that, let’s get some idea of how puberty impacts mental health as a whole.

One question that might arise in our minds is, ‘What does a process that primarily constitutes physical changes have to do with a mental and emotional problem? Well, the answer to this question lies in the age-old problem of the mind-body relationship. The mind-body relationship has been a subject of discussion for centuries and can be summed up in one simple sentence: what happens in the body affects the mind (i.e., our mental and psychological states), and what is happening in our mind affects our body.

We have all experienced this countless times in our lives. A few examples can be exercise (relation to body) causing us to be happy and relaxed (relation to mind), anxiety (related to mind) causing your stomach to churn (related to body), or stress (related to mind) causing a person to be sick very often (related to body).

By establishing this connection, it is not hard to imagine that the physical and chemical changes occurring in our body and brain will have an impact on our emotional and psychological states, contributing to our mental health. Hormones that are the primary drivers of puberty are very powerful chemical secretions that are capable of influencing your moods and emotional states. Hormones are also capable of influencing neurotransmitters in our brain that are directly responsible for the entirety of our behavior and psychological states.

This connection is an established one; e.g., the hormone estrogen is shown to promote the release of serotonin and dopamine (causing a happy mood). Likewise, testosterone is also linked with dopamine activity. In fact, hormones and neurotransmitters are very intricately woven with each other and effect each other all the time.

Puberty is thus very much linked to mental health from a neurochemical perspective, but there is an indirect connection between the two as well. This connection is related to the fact that puberty is a transition phase in a lot of different ways. The young adolescent is entering adulthood while still retaining many qualities from their childhood. Not only their bodies, but their relationships are changing too. For them, the world becomes much broader and full of possibilities.

This can be overwhelming for a lot of them, especially considering the fact that the emotions of a teenager are at their peak without having developed rational capacity. Some researchers have even compared the brains of teenagers to a speeding car without brakes. All of these pressures are sure to have an effect on the adolescent’s mental health. Let’s take a look at the prevalence of mental health issues during puberty.

  • According to a global finding of the World Health Organization (WHO), about 1 in 7 adolescents experience a mental health disorder, the most common of which are depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders.
  • WHO also reported that suicide is the 4th leading cause of death among adolescents.
  • According to a meta-analysis conducted by Shorey, S. & Wong, C. H. in 2022, 34% of adolescents (10–19 years) were at risk of developing major depressive disorder globally.
  • Approximately 3.6% of adolescents from 10 to 14 years old and 4.6% of those aged 15 to 19 are estimated to suffer from an anxiety disorder, according to the WHO.
  • According to a study published in adolescent psychiatry, 48% of the total sample of 304 adolescents developed body image issues due to bullying.
  • While adolescent girls suffer from body image issues and body dysmorphia, adolescent boys are also found to be suffering from a specific type of body image issue called ‘muscle dysmorphia.’ (Mitchison, D.,et. al., 2022)

Thus, all these research studies show that there is a definite link between puberty and mental health and play a role in answering the major concern “Can puberty cause depression?”. Let’s explore further the complex relationship between the mind and body and how puberty can lead to depression.

Can Puberty Cause Depression? Discovering the Link

Now that we have established the fact that adolescence is a time period of many mental health issues, we can ask the question: Can puberty cause depression? Many studies point out that this might be true.

McGuire TC., et. al. (2019) suggest that while the physical changes of puberty alone may increase the risk of depression, the psychological and emotional changes make it even more complicated, increasing the risk even more. The same study also suggests gender differences in depression. While the level of depression was found to be almost equal in both sexes before puberty, the risk increased twofold for girls compared to boys by the end of puberty.

Some studies suggest that an increase in the level of estrogen during puberty contributes to a high risk of depression in both females and males. (Stanikova, D., et al., 2018). This finding, however, has mixed support. There are also studies that suggest no relationship between female hormones alone causing depression (Boivin JR., et. al., 2017). Research literature indicates that hormonal changes associated with menarche are linked with increased sensitivity to stress and internalizing symptoms of depression (Mulligan et al., 2018).

There are also research studies suggesting that lower levels of testosterone in males are linked with a higher level of depression, and as puberty progresses, the level of depression increases (Kristen M. Culbert., 2022).

There are two additional factors that are considered important, apart from hormonal changes: status and timing of puberty. Puberty status refers to the extent of visible development in the body, including height, weight, development of the breasts, etc., and pubertal timing refers to the onset of puberty compared to one’s peers. Both of these factors are important predictors of mental health. (McGuire TC, et. al., 2019). Studies suggest that earlier-maturing girls are at greater risk of many negative mental health outcomes, including depression. (Mendle et al., 2007).

Changes in social relationships also make adolescents going through puberty more susceptible to depression, and this risk is greater for girls compared to boys. Interpersonal conflicts, greater rejection sensitivity, and fear of isolation can also contribute to the development of depression. Evidence suggests that adolescents may use rumination (which is one of the symptoms of depression) as a coping strategy to deal with stress, which can lead to a higher risk of depression (Gomez-Baya et al., 2017).    

Having a family history of depression can also lead to the development of depression during puberty (Thapar A, 2017). Children who already have family members suffering from depression are more likely to develop depression as they go through puberty. The risk of this happening, according to Douglas F. Levinson, M.D. from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medicine, is about 40–50%. This percentage can be even higher in cases of severe depression. This percentage shows that depression is about 50% genetic and 50% psychological and environmental.

Factors that can trigger depression during puberty

Now that we’ve seen how the physical and hormonal changes during puberty, along with factors like the timing of puberty, social relationships, and family history, can potentially lead to depression, let’s delve into some other factors that individuals in their puberty stage might encounter, which could also contribute to depression. Along the way, we’ll continue to explore the intriguing question: Can puberty cause depression, and what can we do about it? 

1. Body Image Issues

Physical changes during puberty can lead to heightened self-awareness and concerns about body image. Teenagers might struggle with problems with their weight, appearance, or how they are perceived by others. Body dissatisfaction can contribute to having a poor self-image, which can lead to depression or make it worse.

2. Peer Pressure and Social Dynamics

During puberty, social dynamics become more complicated, with a focus on peer relationships. The desire to fit in and conform to social norms can lead to peer pressure. Adolescents may feel pressure to live up to certain expectations, and if they think they fall short, it can make them feel lonely and depressed.

3. Academic Stress

The transition to middle or high school often coincides with increased academic demands. The pressure to perform well academically, coupled with concerns about future goals and careers, can create stress. Persistent academic stressors without adequate coping mechanisms may contribute to the development of depression.

4. Family Dynamics

Adolescents can be significantly impacted by changes in family dynamics, such as parental expectations, conflicts, or transitions like divorce. A lack of familial support or strained relationships within the family unit can contribute to feelings of loneliness and sadness.

5. Identity and Self-Discovery

Puberty is a time of identity formation and self-discovery. Adolescents may struggle with questions related to their identity, sexuality, and personal values. Uncertainty or a sense of not fitting societal norms can contribute to emotional distress and increase vulnerability to depression.

6. Traumatic Experiences

Adolescents may face traumatic experiences, such as bullying, abuse, or the loss of a loved one, during puberty. These experiences can have a profound impact on mental health and may trigger the onset of depression if not addressed and processed appropriately.

7. Hormonal Disorders

While hormonal changes are a normal part of puberty, certain hormonal conditions or imbalances may exacerbate emotional challenges. Conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in females or hormonal disorders in males can impact mood regulation, leading to depression.

8. Substance Abuse

During adolescence, trying drugs or alcohol can become risky. Drug and alcohol abuse can change the chemistry of the brain, aggravating mental illnesses like depression. It’s essential to address substance use issues right away to prevent further complications.

All these factors are answers to our query, “Can puberty cause depression?” and give a clear understanding of the connection between puberty and depression. Now we know what an individual goes through in their pubertal stage and how it leads to depression. Understanding these factors is the first step in creating a supportive environment for adolescents to overcome the challenges of puberty. It’s essential for parents, educators, and healthcare providers to work collaboratively to identify signs of depression early and provide appropriate intervention and support.

Can Puberty Cause Depression

Signs of Depression in Adolescents

Being sad and lonely, having mood swings, feelings of worthlessness, and having problems sleeping are a few problems that can be present in many adolescents going through puberty, and these symptoms can go away with time. So how can we distinguish the normal developmental changes that come with puberty from clinical depression?

Clinical depression is a lot more than just sadness and moodiness. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) defines depression as a mood disorder that includes pervasive sadness and a decline in engagement with daily activities. Other symptoms of depression include:

In adolescents, depression can also manifest as:

  • Being enraged, annoyed, or frustrated 
  • Feeling of emptiness
  • Having low self-esteem and being self-critical
  • Self-blaming behavior
  • Sensitive to rejection
  • Poor academic performance at school
  • Ignoring personal hygiene or appearance 

It is very important to differentiate between a person going through normal emotional challenges appropriate for the phase of life they are going through and someone who is going through depression and needs significant assistance.

Normal Emotional Challenges VS Depression

A few major distinctions between normal emotional challenges and depression are:

  • People going through some emotional challenge can usually pinpoint a cause and be affected in that particular area, while depression does not need any such trigger. Depressed individuals are usually hopeless about their lives in general.
  • Another distinction is that the emotional disturbance that comes from normal emotional challenges usually subsides as the problem resolves, but clinical depression is a lot more long lasting.
  • Adolescents going through emotional issues are still able to function well in most areas of their lives, while depression, on the other hand, is a debilitating issue that affects the person’s ability to function in most areas of their lives.

Preventative Strategies for Depression

We now know for a fact that adolescents are susceptible to many emotional and psychological issues. It is thus better to try and prevent more severe problems like depression by using some preventative measures like:

  • Regular check-ins on the adolescent’s mental and physical health
  • Seek professional help early if some signs are seen
  • Being mindful of academic pressure and other strains on adolescents
  • Encouraging extracurricular activities
  • Educating about mental health
  • Limiting screen time, social media usage and monitoring online activity
  • Inculcate coping skills 

Coping Tips for Teens with Depression

  • Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or counselor to share your feelings and experiences.
  • Prioritize self-care by getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in regular physical activity.
  • Find healthy outlets to express your emotions, such as journaling, art, or music.
  • Practice deep breathing techniques to manage stress and anxiety.
  • Break tasks into smaller, achievable goals to reduce feelings of overwhelm.
  • Reduce screen time and social media use to improve overall well-being.
  • Maintain social connections with friends and loved ones to combat isolation.
  • Learn about depression to better understand and cope with your emotions.
  • Remember that it’s okay to have ups and downs, and recovery takes time.

How to Support Your Child Through Puberty and Depression

  • Open Communication: Be honest with your child about puberty and depression, explaining the changes they may experience and reassuring them that it’s okay to feel down at times.
  • Offer Support: Let your child know you love them and are there for them, providing a non-judgmental listening ear and encouragement.
  • Encourage Expression: Support your child in expressing their feelings through talking, journaling, drawing, or painting.
  • Teach Healthy Coping Skills: Help your child develop healthy coping mechanisms like exercise, relaxation techniques, and spending time with loved ones.
  • Set Realistic Expectations: Acknowledge that puberty and depression can be challenging, and set realistic expectations for both you and your child. Don’t expect perfection, and be patient with setbacks.
  • Professional Help: Seek assistance from a therapist or counselor if you’re concerned about your child’s mental health. They can assess symptoms and create a tailored treatment plan.

Additional Tips:

  • Ensure your child feels loved and safe at home by providing a nurturing environment.
  • Motivate your child to engage in activities they enjoy to boost their mood and self-esteem.
  • Help your child adopt a healthy lifestyle by emphasizing a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and regular exercise.
  • Understand that coping with puberty and depression takes time. Continue supporting and loving your child, knowing that improvement will come with time.

Conclusion

Exploring the question, “Can puberty cause depression?” reveals that while puberty can indeed be a contributing factor to depression, it’s not the sole cause. Depression is a complex issue with numerous triggers and underlying causes, and puberty, with its inherent complexities, can add to the mix.

It’s crucial to understand that depression can manifest differently in individuals and may be influenced by various factors, whether genetic, biological, or environmental. Puberty may serve as one of these potential triggers, but it’s important to acknowledge that not every adolescent going through this phase will develop depression.

With this understanding, we can conclude that puberty is undoubtedly a challenging time in one’s life and has the potential to contribute to various mental health issues, including depression. While there is no absolute guarantee, timely attention and care significantly improve the chances of effectively managing depression during puberty. Addressing this issue promptly can help prevent it from becoming a long-term challenge that affects our lives.    

Books That may Help

  • The Anxiety, Worry & Depression Workbook: 65 Exercises, Worksheets and Tips to Improve Mood and Feel Better is a self-help workbook that helps deal with depression, anxiety and worry, written by Jennifer L. Abel
  • The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Build Confidence and Achieve Your Goals. The goal of this book is to develop emotionally healthy teens who can bring stability and balance to their lives by Lisa M. Schab
  • My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind written by Scott Stossel, is an account of the author’s own journey through problems and how we can deal with them in our own lives.
  • The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time by Dzung X. Vo focuses on mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques for teens to help them deal with stress more effectively. 

Additional Resources 

  • HEARD ALLIANCE based in San Francisco, is a community of professionals and health care providers, including primary care and mental health. Their focus is on dealing with depression and suicide in teens as well as young adults. They work in various settings, including clinics, hospitals, private practices, schools, etc. To reach them you can visit their website or you can dial their crisis line 988
  •  The Jed Foundation is a non-profit that specifically deals with the emotional needs of teens, with a main focus on suicide prevention. They also have an emergency resource center for someone going through a crisis and a 24 hours access to mental health professionals in case of emergencies. 
  • We R Native is a helpful place specifically for native American youth. They not only provide plenty of educational resources for youth, they also have helplines that you can contact if you are dealing with problems like assault, drug use, bullying, relationships etc.