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Preadolescent Precursors to Depression in Girls

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By the time girls reach late adolescence there is a 1 in 5 chance of their experiencing a major depressive episode. This is twice the rate of depression in males, and represents the most common and disabling disorder for women. There has been very little effort at identifying precursors to depression, however, and as a result, there are few existing programs aimed at preventing this major public health problem. In current models the emergence of depression at adolescence is conceptualized as resulting from a combination of psychological challenges, biological changes (i.e., puberty) and social demands that are specific to adolescence. In contrast, the proposed study is based on the premise that the roots of adolescent depression lie at least partly in the preadolescent period. We have a unique opportunity to address issues in the development of depression in girls by taking advantage of an ongoing community-based study of young girls, the Pittsburgh Girls Study (PGS).

In the proposed study, we will test the hypothesis that there are measurable, meaningful differences in a number of psychological correlates during preadolescence that serve as precursors to later depression. These include excessive levels of empathy and compliance, and difficulty with emotion regulation. Such correlates have not been incorporated into traditional models of psychopathology, but indirect evidence exists to support their role in the development of depression in girls. In addition, we will test hypotheses about types of caregiving environments and school experiences that interact with preadolescent characteristics of girls to increase the likelihood of later depression. These hypotheses will be tested in a longitudinal study of 240 girls identified from the PGS, half of whom already demonstrate elevated, but sub-clinical depression scores. The girls and their mothers will be observed in laboratory assessments at ages 8, 10, and 12, and will be administered semi-structured interviews covering depressive and anxiety disorders annually from ages 8 to 12.

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