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Depressed girls at risk of later partner abuse

Young women with a history of depression in adolescence are more likely than their peers to become victims of abuse from a boyfriend or husband, new research suggests.
/ Source: Reuters

Young women with a history of depression in adolescence are more likely than their peers to become victims of abuse from a boyfriend or husband, new research suggests.

In a study that followed students at 132 U.S. high schools and middle schools, researchers found that girls who had depression symptoms as teens were nearly twice as likely to suffer moderate to severe partner violence by early adulthood.

Moderate to severe abuse was defined as being hit, slapped, kicked or injured by a husband or boyfriend.

Depression is one of the well-recognized consequences of relationship violence. But much less is known about whether early depression makes some women vulnerable to becoming victims, according to the researchers, led by Jocelyn Lehrer of the University of California San Francisco.

The current findings suggest this may be the case, they report in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Young women who had significant depression symptoms as teenagers were 86 percent more likely than their non-depressed peers to report serious partner violence 5 years later. This association still held after a number of potential risk factors, such as race, parents’ education and history of childhood abuse from a caregiver, were taken into account.

There are several reasons that early depression might make young women either more likely to start a relationship with a “high-risk” partner or less likely to leave after the abuse starts, Lehrer told Reuters Health.

For example, depressed teens and adults seem to often gravitate toward others with similar symptoms, including in dating and marriage. And among men, depression has been linked to a greater risk of abusive behavior.

Women with a history of depression may also be less likely to leave an abusive relationship -- being perhaps more dependent, emotionally or financially, on their partners than are other women.

Hit, slapped or kicked
In the study, Lehrer and her colleagues focused on 1,659 female students who were in a steady relationship during the study’s third wave of interviews -- when the women were 21 years old, on average.

All had been assessed for depression symptoms in the second round of interviews, when they were about 16 years old. “High” symptom levels were considered suggestive of clinical depression.

Overall, 20.0 percent of young women who had high symptom levels in adolescence went on to be hit, slapped or kicked by a partner, compared with 8.5 percent of those without depression symptoms as teens.

“The study findings suggest that depression or elevated depressive symptoms during adolescence may, at the very least, be a red flag or marker for girls’ increased risk of experiencing violence by a relationship partner during young adulthood,” Lehrer said.

Further research, she noted, is needed to establish whether depression directly contributes to a girls’ risk of future abuse. If it does, partner violence could be added to the list of possible consequences of teen depression -- which, Lehrer noted, includes substance abuse, self-injury and suicide.