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Girl Power Props Up Depressed Teens, USC Study Finds

by Gilien Silsby
USC psychology professor Shannon Daley: When a teenage girl is depressed, it’s her girlfriends who will shore her up. “I expected more friendship problems,” Daley said. “But there were really a lot less.”

Photo by Irene Fertik

Boyfriends come and go, but girlfriends are there fo rever – especially in the lives of depressed female teens, according to a USC study published in the current issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

The five-year study found that the best friends of depressed adolescent girls did a better job listening to problems, providing encouragement and conveying love and respect than did boyfriends.

The research focused on 138 young women ranging in age from 16 to 19 and living in predominantly suburban, middle-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. The girls, their boyfriends and best friends were tracked and assessed on several occasions.

“We found that best friends were a lot more supportive when someone’s going through a hard time,” said Shannon Daley, assistant professor of psychology in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and lead author of the paper. “In several cases, boyfriends weren’t much help and actually added to problems of depression.”This is the first study to compare adolescent friendships to romantic relationships in the lives of depressed teenage girls, using direct assessments of all three. Until now, little research has compared how depressed teens function in these two close relationships, Daley added.

Daley’s research found that the more melancholy teens were, the more reassurance and approval their best friends provided. Conversely, romantic partners – by their own admission – gave substantially less support as spirits worsened.

While the teen subjects did notice their boyfriends’ rebuffs, they did not notice increased support from their friends.

“It’s disturbing because a lot of research shows that what really protects you from depression is your perception that other people care about you and are supporting you,” said Daley. “Even though best friends may behave in a supportive way, the fact that depressed girls don’t see this means that they may not benefit from it.”

Best friends also rated their depressed friends’ social skills substantially higher than the boyfriends did.

“The best friends were pretty kind. They described their depressed friends as outgoing, keeping confidences and listening patiently,” said Daley.

The depressed teens rated themselves much lower. Their boyfriends also gave them bad reports.

“I expected more friendship problems,” Daley said. “But there were really a lot less.”

Not surprisingly, many of the depressed teens were involved in dysfunctional romantic relationships. Their boyfriends were more likely to have personality problems, ranging from being emotionally cold and aloof to anxious, erratic and volatile.

Best friends of depressed girls were less likely to have their own psychological problems. In the end, romantic relationships were compromised more by depression than were the friendships.

“We found that the depressed girls were picking guys with psychological problems who definitely did not help them or convey respect and love,” Daley said. “They had a lot more luck with their best friends. Their girlfriends were healthier and a lot more supportive.”

Past studies investigating adolescent depression have tended to center on interviews with parents, teachers and depressed youngsters. No other study has directly surveyed the best friends and romantic partners of depressed adolescents, Daley said.