Analysis: a new report finds that young Irish women experience symptoms of depression at a rate nearly twice that of young men

Our young people binge drink and are cyber-bullied more than their European peers and when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, young Irish women in particular are more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of their generation.

A report published by EU agency European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) last week, found young Irish women aged 15 to 24 have the highest rate of depression in Europe. The rate of chronic depression in Ireland (12%) is three times the rate for the EU overall (4%). The data reveals that on the whole, in the majority of EU states, young women are more likely to suffer from depression than young men. 

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A third of Irish people aged 18 to 24 said there was a difficulty in affording psychological or psychiatric services. However, Ireland also has one of the biggest gender gaps in the EU. Young women in Ireland (17%) experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression at a rate nearly twice that of young men (9%). 

The reasons for that are not straightforward. 

A report published by the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) in November 2018 found that women were 24% more likely to self harm and the highest rates were among young women in Ireland aged 15 to 19. The same report found that while women were more likely to attempt suicide than men, men were more likely to die by suicide.

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Aileen O'Reilly, research manager at Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, and adjunct Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology in University College Dublin, says the biggest differences between genders in mood are seen in early adolescence and decrease with age. 

"We don’t know exactly why," she says. "We know that females tend to have a more emotion-focused coping style and young females tend to have higher levels of avoiding coping. Guys and young adolescents tend to do better in problem-solving coping, which is what you want, solution-focused, dealing with problems. So adolescent males have better coping styles than adolescent females. If you've got that more emotion-focused way of coping you might be more vulnerable to feelings of depression, depending on what's going on."

Adolescent males have better coping styles than adolescent females

O’Reilly highlights that "guys tend to have higher levels of optimism and self-esteem" and body image issues are a factor for girls, though she stresses that boys experience them as well. 

The contradiction in the research, O’Reilly says, is that while females are more likely to report higher levels of depression, they are also the group most likely to seek help, while the stigma around seeking help is particularly strong for males. Research from Jigsaw has found that while young girls aged 12 to 14 are more likely than any other group to report being bullied as a presenting issue, this is not true for boys. 

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"For younger guys, they were more likely to present with anger as a presenting issue. Anger is maybe more of an acceptable way of expressing distress for males as compared with females. Males may not want to identify or recognise depression,' O’Reilly says.

This can lead to a difference in how we cope with life stressors and may be part of why Ireland has the highest rate of binge-drinking teenagers, with a third of those aged 15 to 16 binge-drinking weekly, something which O'Reilly believes is changing with the wave of interest in health and fitness. 

There are so many risk and protective factors that impact on mental health

But there are also multiple social factors that influence our mental health, such as poverty, socioeconomic status and homelessness. The report identified that those aged 18 to 24 living in households in the lowest income quartile had a 20% risk of depression.

The report also highlighted cyberbullying as a growing issue. Ireland has one of the highest rates of cyberbullying and young women are cyber-bullied more than young men. However, when it comes to social media, O’Reilly believes it’s not a clear cut issue. "I don’t think we have enough evidence to make any definitive statements about social media at all. It’s easy to blame it," she says.

"It isn’t just as simple as ‘they’re on Facebook for too long.’ There are so many risk and protective factors that impact on mental our health."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ