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For Depressed Young Women, Girlfriends Are Better Bet Than Boyfriends

Close female friends offer more support in times of need, study says

THURSDAY, April 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Young women struggling with depression often seek emotional support from their boyfriends. However, new research suggests they're not doing themselves any favors.

Boyfriends tend to detach themselves from depressed girlfriends, while female friends move in closer to provide a shoulder to cry on, says Shannon Elizabeth Daley, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California. Her study followed 138 women as they grew from their late teens to their early 20s.

"The more depressed a girl becomes, the less supportive her boyfriend is and the more supportive her girlfriend is," Daley says.

Although some of the findings in Daley's study may seem obvious, researchers haven't looked at these aspects of the social lives of depressed young women, says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University.

Depression is much more common among women than men. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of women suffer from it during their lifetimes, Daley says. And the disorder tends to first strike women in their teen-age years, she says.

Depression is generally defined as two or more weeks of symptoms that can include feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, insomnia or oversleeping, and eating disturbances.

The symptoms "need to be there most of the day, nearly every day," Daley says. "It's not just feeling down once in a while. The person has to be impaired by it. They have to have some kind of adverse consequence in terms of relationships, functioning at work or school."

From 1991 to 1997, Daley and colleagues regularly interviewed the young women, who lived in suburban Los Angeles. More than half of the women were minorities.

The researchers also talked to their boyfriends and female friends, to gauge their relationships with the subjects of the study.

About half of the women suffered at least one episode of depression during the time they were studied.

Through a statistical analysis, the researchers determined levels of support went up among close female friends and dropped among boyfriends during the times of depression.

The women knew their boyfriends weren't being supportive. However, they often didn't realize how much extra support their female friends were sending their way, Daley says. The researchers discovered this by comparing the levels of support that the depressed women perceived, compared to what their girlfriends actually provided.

The support from girlfriends "may not have any real benefit because the subject doesn't believe it" is there, Daley says.

The depressed women were also more likely to hook up with depressed men, Daley adds, potentially exacerbating their problems.

She acknowledges the study leaves several unanswered questions. Are all men more likely to withdraw support when a female friend becomes depressed, or is it only a habit of romantic partners? And what happens to relationships when a man becomes depressed?

Also, Daley says, her study didn't look at homosexual relationships or platonic relationships between heterosexual women and gay male friends.

Kaslow says the patterns found in the USC study may be reflected elsewhere.

"We know that females are more comfortable about being empathetic and listening," she says. "Many girls like being caretakers and caregivers. With boys, when a friend of theirs is down, they may retreat more from the relationship."

The study does offer new insights that can help depressed young women, says Daley, who offered two recommendations for such women.

First, they should be concerned about falling for men with the same problems concerning depression.

The other suggestion?

"Maintain your girlfriend relationships," says Daley, whose study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

What To Do: For more information on women and depression, visit The National Institutes of Mental Health. To learn more about treatments for depression, go to The National Foundation for Depressive Illness.

SOURCES: Shannon Elizabeth Daley, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D, psychologist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University, Atlanta; February-March 2002 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
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