Why Do Men and Women Have Differences in Depression and Aggression?

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Dainis Graveris

Men and women have always been perceived as completely different beings. Given both the biological and physical differences between males and females, wouldn’t it make sense that these differences transversed into the mental health plane? Well let’s find out!

Men vs Women: Conduct Disorder

Conduct Disorder (CD) is defined as repetitive and continuous behavior that violates the basic rights of others or societal norms. These behaviors are separated into four categories which are aggression to people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness or theft, and serious violation of the rules. CD has been found to be more prevalent in males than females. Research has suggested that there may be gender differences in the way CD is expressed.

Bad Behavior

One factor that may need to be paid more attention to when diagnosing males and females with CD is the way in which the different genders display disruptive behaviors. Gender differences in physical aggression have been found at ages as early as 17 months.

Males were found to be 2.62 times more likely to be in the high aggression group vs the medium aggression group compared to females. Additionally, males were viewed as more likely to be direct bullies and more likely to engage in behaviors such as fighting, theft, and vandalism.

On the other hand, females were found to engage in less extreme delinquent behavior but were more likely to lie, commit non-confrontational stealing, run away, be truant, and engage in prostitution. The belief hat males tend to be more physically aggressive than females may be true, but it does not mean that females are unable to engage in dangerous behaviors. Females seem to participate in less extreme aggressive behaviors, such as theft, truancy, and lying, which are still behaviors that qualify as criteria for CD.

It is important for psychologists to remember that a person can violate the rights of others or societal rules in ways that do not have to be physically aggressive. Obviously, starting a fight and using a weapon on someone is a very aggressive and rule violating act, however forging your mother’s signature on a check or running away from home for a few nights are also acts that violate societal norms and the rights of others, although in a less aggressive fashion. This suggests that males and females have different styles of engaging in disruptive behavior that must be considered when giving a diagnosis of CD.

Puberty

Another interesting factor to note which may support the idea that there are gender-specific differences in CD is that research has found that females who undergo early menarche are more likely to experience adolescent, but not childhood, onset of CD.

Early puberty was discovered to influence the development of externalizing behaviors in females, but not in males. This shows that females who undergo early puberty may be at a higher risk for developing CD in adolescence. This may occur because girls who develop earlier than their peers may be treated differently as they appear older than their peers.

These girls may be expected to engage in behaviors that seem appropriate for their current appearance, but not for their experience or mental age. Being pressured to behave differently in their social environment in comparison to their peers may cause them to rebel against the societal norms that others expect them to follow. This is important because it highlights the possibility of a specific environmental influence on CD development in females.

Women vs Men: Depression

Depression is another disorder that has distinctive gender differences with females having higher rates of depression than males. Interestingly, research has found that before adolescence males tend to have more depressive symptoms than females, however by age 13–14 females have surpassed males in terms of number of depressive symptoms experienced.

A reason for this change may be that during this time females are experiencing an increase in stressors, such as body dissatisfaction during puberty and societal expectations/pressure, that make them vulnerable to developing symptoms of depression. While males may undergo these stressors as well, research has shown that males are not as affected or susceptible to some stressors compared to their female counterparts.

Body Image

When it comes to the effect of body dissatisfaction on the development of depression, research has found that girls do not value the physical changes that occur during puberty as much as boys. Girls gain weight and lose the thin prepubescent look that is idealized by many style magazines, while boys, on the other hand, like the increase in muscle mass and height that occurs during puberty.

Research has shown that higher levels of negative body image in girls was associated with increases in depressive symptoms compared to boys. Additionally, it was found that girls are much more likely than boys to have a negative view of their body and therefore are prone to experiencing more depressive symptoms. This research suggests that puberty is a very susceptible time for females regarding the development of depression.

Not Pretty, Dumb, or Quiet Enough for Society

Another factor that uniquely affects the female population and contributes towards a higher rate of depression is societal expectations and pressure. When females reach adolescence, they are confronted with increased expectations to begin adapting to roles that are viewed as suitable for women.

Research has shown that during adolescence girls are encouraged by their parents to engage in feminine activities and pursue feminine occupations, while also being pressured to stop doing masculine activities and discouraged from pursuing masculine occupations. Girls who narrowed their interests to those that were uniquely feminine, such as hair-styling and sewing, ended up being at a greater risk for depressive symptoms. However, it was also found that girls who resisted this pressure, asserted their intelligence, and pursued masculine activities were at risk for being rejected by their peers which in turn placed them at a higher risk for depression.

Research has shown that adolescent females who had high intelligence were more depressed than females who had lower levels of intelligence. During adolescence, females are more concerned than boys about how others will judge their behavior and believed that “they would be liked less by the opposite gender if they were assertive, pursued their own interests, or beat a boy in a competition” (Nolen-Hoeksema & Girgus, 1994).

It seems like women cannot win, either they give in to societal pressure and narrow their interests to those that are considered feminine or they try to assert their competence and are rejected by peers for not fitting into the conventional feminine box.

No matter what path females choose, they will still be prone to increased rates of depression compared to their male counterparts. Gender itself is an important risk factor that needs to be considered when diagnosing depressive disorders as well as creating interventions for depression.

If You Need Help:

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see the National Helpline Database.

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Clinical Psychologist M.A. (PsyD 2023) Specialize in mood, anxiety, and trauma disorders. Mental health and cultural diversity advocate.

Philadelphia, PA
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