Adolescence is often filled with ups and downs, not to mention raging hormones, so it is common for teenagers to experience intense emotions, including feelings of sadness and even minor episodes of depression at some point. For some teenagers, these episodes of depression might signify a larger problem that will develop later in life. Discovering which teenager’s blue feelings will lead to major depression may just have an easier solution, thanks to a recent study.
Researchers from England’s University of Cambridge found that testing cortisol (the stress hormone also known as hydrocortisone) levels in teenagers might indicate whether minor episodes of depression will turn into clinical depression later in life. This test was especially effective for boys.
For the study, the researchers administered a saliva test to more than 1,800 teenagers aged 12 to 19 to measure their level of cortisol. The experiment included two groups that had different test administrations. The first group, comprised of 660 students, provided samples on four school mornings during one week and then repeated the tests a year later. A second group, comprised of 1,198 teenagers, provided the samples on just three school mornings.
Along with the saliva tests, the participants filled out a self-reported survey about their depression symptoms, which the researchers collected over one year. They followed the teenagers for up to three years to see if there were any diagnoses of mental health disorders, especially clinical depression.
After analyzing the data from the cortisol tests and the depression surveys, the researchers divided the teenagers into four subgroups. Group 1 had low levels of depression and normal levels of cortisol and Group 4 had high levels of cortisol and high levels of depression.
After three years, the researchers found that the students in Group 4 were seven times more likely than Group 1 and two to three times more likely than the other two groups to have clinical depression. When analyzing the data based on gender, they found that for boys, those in Group 4 were 14 times more likely to develop clinical depression than Group 1. The girls from Group 4 were up to four times more likely to develop clinical depression. The gender difference in the results is attributed to the fact that cortisol has a different effect on males and females.
The researchers conclude that this saliva test could be a promising way to detect teenagers, especially boys, at greatest risk of developing clinical depression. Early detection could allow the implementation of preventative measures, such as talk therapy, to prevent a person from developing a more serious case of depression.
Depression is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about seven percent of the population. Depression can become debilitating if it is not diagnosed and treated. People suffering from clinical depression often have impaired performance at school or at work, and increased absences. They also will have trouble with their interpersonal relationships, no longer enjoy participating in favorite activities, feel fatigued and unmotivated, and might have suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Depression can also exacerbate other chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Additionally, depression has a high risk of comorbidity with other mental health disorders, substance abuse problems, and eating disorders. Although it can negatively affect a person’s life, depression is treatable, typically through a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the risk of relapse and minimize the negative effects on a person’s work, relationship, and daily life.
There are numerous studies, including this one, attempting to identify biological and physical markers in the body that correlate with a mental health disorder. Understanding the biological markers of a mental health condition can help doctors better diagnose, understand, and treat the conditions.