In terms of overall level of psychopathology in this delinquent sample, there were elevated levels of depressive symptoms and more frequent and varied substance use than has been reported on the basis of administering equivalent measures in general adolescent populations, consistent with other studies of incarcerated youth (Domalanta et al., 2003
; Teplin et al., 2002
). To better understand factors that contribute to increased depression in this particular high-risk sample, analyses of two constructs drawn from the literature on youth depression, stress and support, were conducted. When main effects versus buffering models were examined to explicate the relationship between caregiver support, stress, and youth depressive symptoms, evidence supported the main effects model. Perceived caregiver support was associated with youth self-reports of depressive symptoms regardless of stress levels. Both boys and girls who rated their caregiver(s) to be less supportive of them reported more depressive symptoms. This stands apart from prior cross-sectional studies of depression in community samples of adults who emphasize the buffering role of support in relation to stress and depression (Brown, 1987
) but is aligned with more recent prospective studies conducted with adolescents (Burton et al., 2004
). The findings are consistent with the notion that social support has a generalized positive impact on depression in this sample even among detained youth who come from backgrounds and environments laden with multiple risk factors. It may be that detained youth are primed toward depression and that the absence of caregiver support, when added to the myriad of other risks, increases vulnerability among these youth.
Being exposed to more stressful life events was also associated with higher depression scores above and beyond the effect of caregiver support, with a somewhat stronger relationship between stressful life events and depressive symptoms for boys compared to girls. In this study, detained girls had relatively high levels of depression, regardless of the number of stressors to which they were exposed, while detained boys who reported low stress experienced lower levels of depression. In contrast, boys with high stress levels had much higher depression scores than did boys with low stress levels. This finding ran counter to the hypothesis and differed from other research studies on adolescents, which have either found no sex differences (Berden, Althaus, & Verhulst, 1990
; Goodyer, Kolvin, & Gatzanis, 1986
) or have found a stronger relationship between stressful life events and depression among girls (Ge et al., 1994
). The phenomenon of greater male vulnerability to stress has been found to exist between children and younger adolescents, but the reverse pattern (girls’ greater vulnerability) has been documented among older adolescents (Goodman, Brumley, Schwartz, & Purcell, 1993
; Hops, 1995
; Zaslow & Hayes, 1986
). There are several possible explanations for the gender findings in this study being divergent with the literature.
One possibility is that for girls, and particularly those involved in the juvenile justice system, the role of stress per se may in fact be relatively diminished compared to other biological, psychological, and social factors involved in the etiology of depression. There is a whole host of factors that create vulnerability toward depression for postpubertal girls, including hormonal and genetic factors. Consistent with this idea, Silberg and colleagues’ (1999)
study of genetic and life stress influences on adolescent depression among twins concluded that “for boys, depression appears to be largely attributable to the occurrence of negative life events, since any age-related increase in male depression is evidenced only among those who have experienced a life event in the past year. For girls, the rise in depressive symptoms is still evident (although to a lesser extent) among those who have not experienced a notable life event, implicating other putative risk factors” (p. 230). This may be particularly true of girls who are involved in the juvenile justice system. According to the relative deviance hypothesis, because criminal behavior is both less common and less socially acceptable among girls, female detainees would be expected to have a higher risk profile compared to boys who get detained (Dembo et al., 1994; Eme, 1992
An alternative explanation for this finding is that among detained youth the number of different types of stressful life events is less important than the valence or impact upon their daily lives. It may be the case that the stressful events measured were more salient to boys or resulted in a more “stressful” response on their part and that other stressors were more relevant for girls in correctional settings. For example, the boys in the sample had experienced more episodes in juvenile detention compared to girls. The measure of stressful life events used in this study did not make a distinction between having any arrest and experiencing multiple arrests in the past year, thus yielding what would appear to be similar responses in spite of multiple arrests suggesting more chronic stress. Certainly, the relationship between the personal salience of stress and depression is an area ripe for future research.
There are several limitations to the study that must be taken into account in considering its conclusions and planning future research. Due to the constraints of conducting research in a juvenile detention setting, youths were the sole informants. While it would clearly be advantageous to interview caregivers and other informants, the small window of time during which many of the youth were retained in detention (4 days on average) did not afford this opportunity. Although most information on stress buffering has relied heavily on self-report (e.g., Burton et al., 2004
), it is clear that convergent data from multiple sources would give more confidence in these findings. It is also possible that responses to assessment were affected by the detention process per se. The current study, like other studies of detained adolescents (e.g., Domalanta et al., 2003
; Teplin et al., 2002
), is cross-sectional and observational in design, so that it cannot tease out whether lack of supportive adult relationships plays a causal role in the development of depression among these youth. Because this is a prevalence survey, there is no information about the duration of their depressive symptoms or about the temporal sequence among onset of depressive symptoms, occurrence of stressful life events, and experiences of parental support. A final caveat of this study is that only a small number of possible variables that might influence depression was examined, and effects were generally modest in size.
Despite these limitations, this study corroborates other research findings that show that many youth in custody have significant mental health needs, including elevated levels of depressive symptoms and frequent substance use, and goes a step further in testing two plausible models for depression risk among this susceptible population. From a public health standpoint, juvenile detention could be considered an opportunity for screening and assessment of mental health needs, stresses, and supports and for referral to appropriate services. As Grisso and colleagues (Grisso, Barnum, Fletcher, Cauffman, & Peuschold, 2001
) have noted that “. . . in the interests of public safety, we should attend to the treatment of youths’ disorders that may have played a role in their illegal behavior.” This is particularly important in light of the association between depression and increased incidence of incarceration and recidivism (Clark-Jones, 1999
; Cocozza, 1992
; Whitbeck et al., 2000
). In considering intervention programs, enhancement of caregiver and other adult support as well as stress reduction/stress management techniques may be promising strategies in ameliorating youth depression. Future research could test intervention programs that work to increase support from existing caregivers or temper the impact of stressful life events, depending on a youth’s profile of risk. Examining the course of adolescents’ depression with and without such added supports would provide additional information about the potential of these strategies to lessen the risk of depression among criminally involved adolescents.