Findings from the Journal of Adolescent Health suggest that while teens in the US and Canada show similar depressive symptom trajectories during the transition to adulthood, socioeconomic status plays a stronger role in the United States.
The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a challenging time that can be accompanied by the emergence of depressive symptoms. Researcher Anita Minh and her team explain how socioeconomic status (SES) can affect a young person’s likelihood of developing depressive symptomology by dictating the resources available to them. These resources are influenced by the institutional systems in place in one’s environment. With this reasoning, SES can have a differing impact on a person’s risk for depression depending on where they live.
Minh and her colleagues were motivated to explore whether adolescents in the US and Canada would demonstrate differing trajectories for depressive symptoms, given the different systems in place within the two countries. In the US, there are fewer systems in place to buffer the impact of low SES during childhood when compared to Canada. The researchers proposed that the link between low SES and depressive symptoms would be stronger among American teens than Canadian teens.
To explore this, the researchers compared two longitudinal surveys of adolescents from each country. The American data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 Children/Young Adult, and the Canadian data came from several cycles of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth in Canada.
The researchers focused on participants who had depressive symptom data collected on three occasions between the ages of 16 and 25. At ages 10-11, three measures of SES had been collected for each child: relative family income, parental education, and parental unemployment.
First, the researchers noted that both samples showed four, similar depression symptom trajectories. One was characterized by low, stable symptoms and another by symptoms peaking in the middle around ages 19-21. A third trajectory was characterized by symptoms continually increasing, and the final trajectory showed symptoms continually decreasing.
“The similarities observed between the depressive symptom trajectories in the U.S. and Canada suggest that depressive symptoms may follow consistent patterns in the transition to adulthood,” Minh and her fellow researchers say. “As in other studies, we found that a low-stable trajectory with few to no symptoms was most common in both countries.”
Among both Americans and Canadians, those who were in the increasing symptom trajectory group were disproportionately of low SES. But low SES appeared to influence trajectory membership to a different extent in each country.
In the US, low childhood SES appeared to have a stronger influence on depressive symptomology than in the Canadian sample. Among the US cohort (but not in Canada), those with a lower family income were more likely to be in the increasing symptoms trajectory group. American youth with less-educated parents were also more likely to be in the decreasing symptoms trajectory group. Among the Canadian sample, neither childhood family income nor parental education was significantly related to depressive symptom trajectory membership.
The findings suggest that institutional differences between countries can impact the effects of childhood SES on depressive symptom trajectories in adolescence. Research has suggested that greater income inequality in the US, when compared to other countries, is matched to poorer outcomes for adolescents and children. In line with this research, the current study suggests that, at least in the US, a child’s family income influences their future depressive symptoms.
Minh and her colleagues say that policy makers should address the systematic roadblocks that reinforce SES inequality during childhood and adolescence. For example, schools in America vary in quality to a greater extent than they do in Canada, and there are fewer social benefits available for low-income families. “Child benefit programs, for example, are an important aspect of the social safety net for disadvantaged children and families that may be leveraged for prevention,” the authors emphasize.
The study, “Childhood Socioeconomic Status and Depressive Symptom Trajectories in the Transition to Adulthood in the United States and Canada”, was authored by Anita Minh, Ute Bültmann, Sijmen A. Reijneveld, Sander K. R. van Zon, and Christopher B. McLeod.