The Link Between Depression and Youth Violence
Implications for Violence Prevention
Depression and violence among adolescents are two public health concerns in the United States that require urgent attention. The relationship between mental health and violence, particularly school violence, has recently gained public attention due to several high-profile school shootings. Understanding the role of mental health in violent and aggressive behavior among youth is a complex issue. The link between depression and violence among adults is well-established. However, varying manifestations of depression among adolescents raise unique questions about its role in understanding and preventing youth violence. While depression profoundly affects individual functioning, its high rate of occurrence among youth also has societal implications, including decreased productivity and social engagement and potentially increased rates of violent behavior and crime.
This article will explore the relationship between depression and youth violence, including the implications for violence prevention programs for depressed adolescents.
Prevalence and Symptoms of Depression in Youth
Depression is a common mental health problem among adolescents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 adolescents experiences depressive symptoms, whereas approximately 10% experience a major depressive episode each year. Depression may involve persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, restlessness, or anxiety. Youth experiencing depressive symptoms may also have difficulty concentrating or making decisions and abnormal sleep patterns. Depressed adolescents may also lose interest in activities that once interested them and withdraw from their friends and families. Depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated during adolescence, with approximately 60% of adolescents never receiving mental health treatment for their symptoms (Mental Health America, 2022). Untreated depression is a significant concern and risk factor for increased rates of substance abuse and suicidal behavior.
Prevalence of Youth Violence
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youth violence is a significant public health problem in the United States. Each day, approximately 1,374 youth between 10-24 visit emergency departments for non-fatal physical assault-related injuries. In addition, homicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 10-24. Approximately 12 young people die daily from violence (CDC, 2016). According to data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, in 2020, 15.2% of murders, 20% of robberies, and 10.6% of aggravated assaults were committed by youth aged 10-19 (The Sentencing Project, 2022). Bullying is another type of youth violence that negatively affects mental health and increases the risk for violence among victims. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2019), 1 in 5 high school students reported experiencing bullying at school within the past year.
The prevalence of youth violence varies by gender and race/ethnicity. Boys are more likely than girls to be victims of violence, and African American youth are more likely than white or Hispanic youth to experience violence. In addition, LGBTQ youth are at increased risk for violence, as they are often the targets of bullying and hate crimes.
Causes of Youth Violence
There is no single cause of violence. Violence is likely the result of a complex interaction between genetic, environmental, and situational factors. Family factors such as poverty, parental substance abuse, and domestic violence can increase the risk of violence. Youth exposed to or experiencing violence in the home are at higher risk of engaging in violent behavior. Community factors such as witnessing or experiencing violence in the community or living in neighborhoods with high crime rates, gang activity, and inadequate schools are also risk factors for violence. Peer groups can also promote or discourage violence, as adolescents who associate with violent peers are at higher risk of engaging in violence themselves. Additionally, exposure to violent media can desensitize adolescents to violence and reduce their inhibitions against committing violent acts themselves.
Personal factors are also significant risk factors for violence, as adolescents who are highly impulsive or aggressive and those who abuse substances are also at increased risk of violence. Studies have consistently shown a strong correlation between mental health problems (e.g., CD, ODD, ADHD) and violence. Research has documented a relationship between depression and violence among adults, although the relationship between depression and violence among youth has been less studied. However, a recent longitudinal study using youth samples from the Netherlands, Finland, and United Kingdom found that depressed adolescents were twice as likely as non-depressed youth to commit violent crimes over four years (Yu, Aaltonen, Branje, Ristikari, Meeus, Salmela-Aro, Goodwin, & Fazel, 2017).
How Does Depression Affect Violent Behavior Among Youth?
Research has found a consistent link between depression and violence among adults, although the association between depression and youth violence has received less attention. However, a growing body of research indicates a relationship between depression and youth violence. Several studies have found that depressed adolescents are more likely to engage in various types of violent behavior, including fighting, carrying a weapon, and perpetrating serious assaults (Brook, Whiteman, Gordon, & Cohen, 1990; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Guerra, Tolan, & Van Acker, 2000). Unlike adult depression, adolescent depression can often manifest as irritability and aggressiveness among adolescents (Stringaris & Goodman, 2009). Depression involves negative moods and emotions, which can often lead to feelings of frustration and anger. When these negative emotions co-occur with a lack of self-control or impulse control, it can result in aggressive or violent behavior. Research has found that depressed youth are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior when provoked (Crick & Dodge, 1996).
Depression can also increase violence risk among youth by affecting how they process information and make decisions. Studies have found that depressed adolescents are more likely than non-depressed adolescents to display impulsive (Reagan, Harris, & Fields, 2022) and risky behavior (Bannink, Broeren, Heydelberg, van’t Klooster, & Raat, 2015). Furthermore, depressed adolescents are more likely to hold hostile attributions–beliefs that other people's actions are intentional and harmful–which can lead to aggressive behavior (Quiggle, Garber, Panak, & Dodge, 1992)
Studies have also found that depression is associated with several risk factors for violence among adolescents. For example, one study found that adolescents with depressive symptoms admitted to an emergency department have elevated violence risk factors, including exposure to and experience of violence and substance use (Ranney, Walton, Whiteside, Epstein-Ngo, Patton, Chermack, Blow, & Cunningham, 2014). Additional research is needed to explore the complex relationship between depression and violence among youth. However, common risk factors increase the risk of depressed youth engaging in aggressive or violent behavior.
It is important to note that not all depressed adolescents will engage in violence. However, the relationship between depression and violence should be taken seriously, as depressed youth are at increased risk of violence.
How Can Violence Be Prevented Among Depressed Youth?
Several strategies can be effective in preventing violence among depressed youth. First, it is essential to identify and assess common risk factors for both depression and violence. Screening for common risk factors, such as exposure to violence and maladaptive thoughts or beliefs, can help identify youth at risk for depression and violence. Interventions should target common risk factors for depression and violence whenever possible. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively reduces adolescents’ depressive symptoms and aggressive behaviors (Spirito, Esposito-Smythers, Wolff, & Uhl, 2011; Sukhodolsky, Smth, McCauley, Ibrahim, & Piasecka, 2016). In addition, preventative community or family-based programs that decrease adolescents' exposure to and experience of violence may also be beneficial for reducing the likelihood of developing depression and engaging in violent or aggressive behavior. Furthermore, interventions that specifically target risk factors for violence are needed, such as interventions that teach anger management or promote problem-solving skills, which can reduce youth violence risk (Dodge et al., 2006; Lochman & Wells, 2004).
Depression and youth violence are public health problems in the United States that require urgent attention. Effective violence prevention programs are more critical now than ever, especially given the increasing frequency of bullying and fatal school shootings. Research has demonstrated that adolescent depression is a significant risk factor for youth violence. In addition, depression and youth violence share many common risk factors, such as exposure to violence and distorted thought processes. Comprehensive violence prevention programs must consider the mental health needs of adolescents and the common risk factors of mental health issues like depression and violence. As a nation, we must take action to protect our youth and prevent any more tragedies from occurring.
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About the author
I am a former special education teacher and aspiring psychologist interested in applying behavioral and psychological principles to promote mental health and reduce crime among youth and young adults.