Relationship of Self-Esteem and Depression In Adolescence
by Kathie F. Nunley
On May 14, 1996, a 15-year-old middle school student shot
his bus driver in the leg, forced all the students off the
bus and led police on a high speed chase through a residential
neighborhood in Salt Lake City. The chase ended when the
boy shot himself right before crashing the school bus into
the family room of a house. The boy, dressed in a cowboy
hat and poncho, was holding the obituaries of two recently
deceased classmates (Horiuchi, et al., 1996).
One month earlier across town, Caz and Joey, bright, popular
high school students were lab partners in honors physics
class. One morning, after a fight the night before with
his father, Caz was found dead, hanging from a pipe in the
basement. Two weeks later, Joey ran his car into a cement
barrier wall at 70 miles an hour, killing himself instantly.
Depression During a Unique Period of Development
depression effects one in fifty school children. Countless
others are effected by milder cases of depression which
may also effect school performance (Lamarine, 1995). The
peak age of depression correlates with the peak years of
low self-esteem. Feldman & Elliot (1990) write that
the prime period for low self-esteem is early and middle
adolescence with a peak period between the ages of thirteen
The suicide rate in teenagers has quadrupled in the last
quarter century making it the 3rd leading cause of adolescent
death in the nation. In Utah, it is the number one cause
of death in for individuals 15 - 44 years old (Wagner, 1996).
A high school with a population of 2,000 students can expect
50 attempted suicides per year (Kahn,1995). And yet depression
and other affective disorders continue to be an area primarily
ignored by the public schools.
One of the factors that makes depression so difficult to
diagnose in adolescents is the common behavior changes that
are normally associated with the hormonal changes of this
period (Lamarine, 1995). It has only been in recent years
that the medical community has acknowledged childhood depression
and viewed it as a condition which requires intervention.
History of Adolescent Depression
Historically, children were not considered candidates for
depression (Whitley,1996). Mostly because of Freudian notions
about the unconscious, depression had been viewed as a condition
which only effected adults. Today, childhood depression
is widely recognized and health professionals see depression
as a serious condition effecting both adolescents and young
children (Whitley, 1996; Lamarine, 1995).
Views on adolescent depression have changed significantly
even since the 1970's where childhood depression was thought
to be masked by other conditions (Kahn, 1995). The debate
continues, even today, as to whether other childhood and
adolescent behaviors are simply "masks" for childhood depression.
Fritz (1995), writes that depression may often be seen in
physical ailments such as digestive problem, sleep disorders
or persistent boredom. Lamarine (1995), considers that in
children, depression may often be mistaken for other conditions
such as attention deficit disorder, aggressiveness, physical
illness, sleep and eating disorders and hyperactivity. Although
depression in children may be confused with attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), ADHD must begin before the
age of 7 (Burford, 1995).
Other writers prefer to move past the philosophy of masked
depression and view adolescent depressive symptoms as similar
to those of adults (Kahn, 1995; Sanford, 1996; Fritz, 1995;
Along with a reconsideration of depression in children,
mania and bipolar disorder (manic-depression) are being
added to the acceptable list of childhood and adolescent
conditions. The symptoms of mania in children or adolescents
consist of euphoria along with extreme anger and rage. Mania
or manic-depression may also be misdiagnosed and treated
as a masking condition such as and ADHD (Whitley, 1996).
Symptoms of Depression and Low Self-esteem
to some research (Fritz, 1995) about 5% of adolescents suffer
from depression symptoms such as persistent sadness, falling
academic performance and a lack of interest in previously
enjoyable tasks. In order to be considered major depression,
symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, lack of appetite and
loss of interest in social activities must continue for
a period of at least two weeks (Arbetter, 1993).
Research has also found a correlation between major depression
in adolescence and the likelihood of depression in young
adulthood (Rao, 1994). Not only were most depressed adolescents
depressed adults, but serious social adjustment problems
plagued these individuals as they moved into adulthood.
And there is evidence that depression in adolescents is
likely to repeat itself within a year or two. In fact, two-thirds
of depressed teens will be depressed again during their
teenage years (Sanford, 1996; Fritz, 1995).
One of the chief differences between adult and adolescent
depression is that depression in adolescents usually involves
more social and interpersonal difficulties which directly
leads to self-esteem problems. Adolescents are also more
likely to idealize suicide as a solution to feelings of
helplessness. Adolescents may also socially isolate themselves
when depressed out of feelings of guilt. Dramatic behaviors
such as aggression and an obsession or fascination with
death often accompany their depression (Lamarine, 1995).
Adolescent problems that correlate with low self-esteem
include depression, unsafe sex. criminal activity, and drug
abuse. (New model 1995). Educators and schools can be ideal
scouts for depression in adolescents. Since depression often
results in lower academic performance, behavior problems,
and poor socialization, schools are often the best place
to observe all these symptoms (Lamarine, 1995).
Causes and Correlations of Depression
Causes of depression number almost as high as symptoms of
depression. There appears to be a genetic factor to depression.
Families with a history of depression often exhibit the
symptoms during adolescence (Fritz, 1995). And depressed
children frequently come from parent who have been depressed.
Besides genetic predispositions to depression, social skills
deficits may also contribute. These social skills deficits
are harder to determine as it is difficult to find whether
the inability to form good social skills causes, or results
from the depression (Lamarine, 1995). Sexual orientation
adjustment problems have also been linked to depression,
especially in communities with strong social pressures.
A study in currently underway with the Utah Department of
Health to study the link between homosexuality and adolescent
suicide (Wagner, 1996).
Coincidently, the peak age of depression and low self-esteem
coincides with the transition from elementary to junior
high school. This age may have an inability to deal with
the new social demands as well as academic demands of a
new school (Feldman & Elliot, 1990; Eccles, et. al.,
There appears a relationship between latch-key kids and
depression. Unsupervised adolescents are more prone to substance
abuse, risk-taking,depression, and low self esteem (Richardson,
et. al., 1993). One of the factors that correlates with
recurring depression is a negative relationship between
adolescents and their fathers along with an inability of
the mothers to monitor behavior (Sanford, 1996).
There is an negative correlation between depression and
athletic participation. Although adolescents that participate
in athletics do not show a decrease in drug use, they do
exhibit significantly less depression and suicidal tendencies
Depressed adolescents with a history of sexual abuse have
a higher incidence of posttraumatic stress disorder, but
no increase in the severity of depression symptoms nor tendency
for suicide (Brand, et. al., 1996).
Another factor associated with adolescent depression and
negative behaviors is difficulty in establishing autonomy
in the adolescent's relationship with parents.
Adolescent depression is seen in higher frequency in families
where the children have difficulty establishing their own
identity because of negative communication patterns and
other dysfunctional family attributes (Allen, et. al., 1994).
One topic that permeates the research on depression is the
concept of self- esteem. There has been a long standing
correlation between low self-esteem and depression. The
views on self-esteem are changing more rapidly than even
the views on depression. The traditional thinking with self-esteem
was if one could improve the way an individual perceived
him or herself, then the secondary behaviors that accompany
low self-esteem would disappear (New model, 1995). This
traditional philosophy is taking a new direction.
Relationship of Depression to Self-esteem
There is a strong correlation between a person's emotional
reactions and their involvement in social relationships.
Therefore, to increase one's self-esteem, one needs to improve
one's standing in interpersonal relationships rather than
trying to fix some perception about themselves. Research
has shown that it doesn't have to be the actual rejection
of a person by a social situation, it can simply be the
imagined or anticipated rejection. (At last, 1995).
New research indicates that the behaviors are not the result
of low self-esteem, but rather the result of social rejection
which leads to low self-esteem. In other words, self-esteem
does not cause a person to behave a particular way, it is
the result of poor social relationships (New model, 1995;
and self-esteem may be viewed as a vicious cycle. The inability
to relate positively in social situations may lead to low
self-esteem which leads to depression. The depression then
leads to further inability to relate with others or be fully
accepted in social groups which then adds to the feelings
of low self-esteem (Davila, et. al., 1995).
This research opens a new area of study into the relationship
between depressed people and their environment. Following
Bronfenbrenner's (1986) notion of the mesosystem model of
interactions, the relationships between an individual and
the various environments of influence, must be considered
just as important as the individual's self.
Since poor interpersonal problem solving skills lead to
higher levels of depression, which in turn leads to more
interpersonal difficulties, one may argue that teaching
problem solving skills is the intervention solution. However,
there does not appear to be a relationship between adolescent
cognitive problem solving abilities and interpersonal skills.
Therefore, one could conclude that it is not that adolescents
do not know how to solve problems but they lack the desire
or willingness to use those interpersonal skills (Davila,
et. al, 1995).
Feldman and Elliot (1990) report that there is a direct
relationship between the perception of social success and
self-esteem. This success may include confidence in appearance,
academic ability, athletic ability, and social belonging.
Self-esteem is then, a barometer of how well one is doing
socially. It monitors the acceptance level of the people
and groups in the surrounding environment. Similar to Maslow's
hierarchy of needs (Huffman, et. al.,1994), this new theory
supports the idea that people seek a certain amount of social
acceptance and belonging which will take precedence over
other factors such as self-actualization (New Model, 1995;
At last, 1995).
Other factors effect depression and other affective adolescent
problems. Parental influences on self-esteem are reported
by Feldman and Elliot (1990) who find that parents who model
openness and acceptance of new ideas can have a positive
effect on their child's self-esteem. Other parental factors
include encouragement for children to form their own view
points, as well as a secure family relationship to form
a basis for exploration.
Transition from elementary to junior. high school or from
junior high to senior high increases feeling of low self-esteem.
Students who do not make such a change in school have a
reduced incidence of low self-esteem. Unfortunately, some
students, particularly females, do not recover from this
low self image in later adolescence (Feldman & Elliot,
Competition is a popular blame agent for low self-esteem.
It is easy for an adolescent to interpret a competitive
loss with failure, thereby damaging self-esteem. Not only
does competition damage self-esteem, it hinders interpersonal
relationships. Instead of being a demonstration of strength
and confidence, competition is a show of insecurity (Kohn,
1993). Competition may be viewed as a disservice by educators
who should be improving the adolescent's ability to relate
well with others. Instead, this spirit of competition held
in many school activities serves to block healthy communication.
Regarding competition in schools, Kohn writes, "Kids face
it all the time in an award assembly, an event usually held
in school auditoriums that instantly transforms most people
present into losers" (p.1).
Competition implies comparisons which should be eliminated
from parenting for the sake of self-esteem, according to
Evitt (1990). Rather than make comparisons between children,
which makes the child feel inferior, parents should acknowledge
and encourage the natural differences found in individuals.
Self-esteem has also been linked to problem solving skills.
Lochman, et. al., (1993), studied the relationship in aggressive
adolescent boys and their social problem solving skills.
The study was based on the idea that exhibited behaviors
are the result of a person's goals and their expectation
that their behavior will lead to that goal.
Goals set by socially unpopular adolescents tend to focus
on non-social goals involving peer relations. As might be
expected, aggressive adolescents value dominance and revenge
over affiliation. These adolescents had a higher incidence
of depression, which points to lack of self-esteem. Interestingly,
while popular students were very clear in their goals of
affiliation, non-popular students were unclear in their
goals. While unpopular students ranked dominance and revenge
higher, they also indicated a significant value for affiliation.
This leads researchers to conclude that aggressive, or unpopular
children have greater internal conflict than popular children.
This creates difficulty in social negotiations, leading
to low self-esteem, leading to depression. These researchers
(Lochman, et. al., 1993) suggest that intervention should
include helping problemed adolescents find more socially
acceptable strategies for problem solving which will enable
them to reach their personal goals.
Various therapies have been used with adolescent depression.
Psychoanalytical therapies target the unconscious conflicts
resulting in the depression. Behavior therapies design reinforcement
programs to change behavior patterns. Cognitive therapies
look to improve and examine metacognition and increase more
positive thought patterns (Lamarine, 1995).
Unfortunately it is harder to medically treat adolescent
depression than adult depression because adolescents are
less likely to respond to the medication (Fritz, 1995).
Therefore, alternative treatments such as counseling have
proven more successful. Physicians will prescribe anti-depressant
medication to a depressed adolescent, but if that child
appears suicidal, a psychological counselor will also become
involved (Burford, 1995).
Many schools have targeted depression by teaching students
coping strategies for stress. These programs are most effective
with those students that are at-risk for depression (Lamarine,
1995). School administrators and teachers feel that although
courses may be offered for the adolescents themselves, the
more successful programs are those that are taught to parents
for working with adolescents in their own homes (Evitt,
1990). An important factor in preventing depression is a
positive relationship with parents. This is especially important
in early adolescence (Sanford, 1996).
Hindering solution strategies, is the stigma that remains
attached to mental health problems, especially for youth.
This makes it difficult for educators to consider emotional
problems as a cause for poor academic performance (Lamarine,
1995). It is important however, to recognize the signs of
adolescent depression early, before the depression interferes
with the child's interpersonal relationships which will
ultimately affect self-esteem.
According to Evitt (1990) self-esteem classes are one of
the most popular topics for parenting classes. Nationally,
task forces are calling for more parent workshops and classes
on how to improve the self-esteem of children. Based on
the idea that parents have a more powerful impact on children
than the schools, many of these programs are being offered
at convenient times for parents such as evenings or lunch
Other intervention programs have attempted to increase self-esteem
through exercise. Depression has been reduced through the
improvement of body image that comes with exercise. Exercise
can be particularly beneficial if it is through a non-competitive
sport such as swimming (West, 1993).
Other programs are aimed at improving children's self esteem
through music coupled with exercise. These programs not
only target improvement of self-esteem, but also an improvement
in interpersonal relationships (Foreman, 1993). By increasing
a person's interpersonal social skills, self-esteem improves
(At last, 1995). According to Evitt (1990), some ways parents
can improve self-esteem in their adolescent include improving
communication, limit setting and setting expectations, and
nurturing a sense of responsibility. To insure a sense of
security in the home, parents should set clear expectations
and limits. To improve responsibility, parents should determine
all the tasks a child is capable of doing and then insist
on them doing them.
Apparently if self-esteem remains low, adolescents will
seek out groups in order to find a collective self-esteem.
Discrimination between these groups increases personal self-esteem.
The greater the need for group or collective self-esteem,
the greater the discrimination. Long, et.al. (1995), found
that people with particularly low personal self-esteem rely
on group or collective self-esteem more than those with
high personal self-esteem. It was shown that persons with
high personal self-esteem discriminated not only between
their group and others, but also within their own group,
as whole group competitions may rely on attributes often
out of the individual's control. Conversely, individuals
with low personal self-esteem discriminate very little within
their own group, as they depend on the collective self-esteem
of their group to compensate for their weakness. Perhaps
then, gang membership is a positive step toward reducing
depression in persons with low self-esteem. The only real
difference between belonging to a gang and belonging to
an athletic team is the rules.
To effectively target adolescent depression, schools need
to target self-esteem. The approach to improving self-esteem
should be different from the traditional view of individualized
pep talks. Self-esteem can only be improved when the environment
in which the person lives improves -- improvement, in terms
of interpersonal skills and social acceptance. Those adolescents
with particularly low self-esteem need to have the opportunity
for belonging. A collective self-esteem through group and
team membership can be especially helpful for persons whose
family environment lacks the acceptance and support necessary
for healthy self-development.
The junior and senior high schools need to continue to examine
the isolation created by these large impersonal institutions.
We are subjecting all adolescents to these places at a time
when belonging, community, and interpersonal skills are
so critical and imperative. The damage that can be done
at this age may be long lasting and permanent, even deadly.
F. Nunley is an educational psychologist, author, researcher
and speaker living in southern New Hampshire. Developer
of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction, Dr.
Nunley has authored several books and articles on teaching
in mixed-ability classrooms and other problems facing today's
teachers. Full references and additional teaching and
parental tips are available at: http://Brains.org
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