According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women may be up to 70% more likely to suffer depressive symptoms. However, the reported difference in depression rates between men and women may be exaggerated by men’s tendency to under-report their depressive symptoms, new research suggests.

Interestingly, difference in depression rates flipped when researchers changed the words “depression inventory” to “well-being inventory” on the CES-D, a self-reported depressive symptoms questionnaire.

When they thought the questionnaire was evaluating their well-being, men reported more depressive symptoms.

Joshua Swanson, an undergraduate psychology student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh presented data from the study on April 23rd at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine Conference in Philadelphia. “When practicing physicians go to evaluate depressive symptoms in men, it is important that they keep this response bias in mind,” said Swanson.

The study included 111 students who were randomized to fill out one of the two surveys, either the unchanged CES-D or the modified version that swapped the word “depression” for “well-being.” While the women’s rate did not vary, the men reported significantly more depressive symptoms on the “well-being” questionnaire.

Dr. Gareth Dutton of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was not part of the study said, “These findings highlight explanations for the long-documented disparity in depression rates between men and women, suggesting that men may respond differently to traditional and commonly used measures to assess depression. This is consistent with some of the previous research on gender differences in depression but provides a unique and innovative perspective by artificially manipulating the purpose of a depression screening instrument.”

However, the implications of the findings may not be clear. When the researchers did the same test online with 116 different participants, the differences disappeared. The wording of the questionnaires did not appear to influence the responses from either men or women.

Said Swanson, “We hypothesized that either the anonymity of being online reduced their need to alter their responses to be socially desirable, or that the participants were less attentive taking an online study. We are currently working on a third in-lab study where we are also manipulating perceived anonymity to see exactly what is going on.”    4/29/14

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