Early Menarche in Girls Linked to Increased Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: Study

Early menarche can trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety in young girls, as well as lead to addictions, alcohol use, and self-harm. Families and educators are urged to provide support and guidance during this crucial stage of development.

Early Menarche in Girls Linked to Increased Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: Study
Researchers have shown a correlation between girls reaching menarche at a younger age and an increase in depressive and anxious symptoms. Images generated by Open AI DALL·E

If there is a gap between the sexual development and psychosocial maturity of young girls with early menarche (the first menstrual period of some minors), symptoms of depression and anxiety could be triggered. They could also easily fall into addictions, start drinking alcohol earlier, and do harmful things like cutting (cutting the skin with sharp objects without trying to kill themselves) and eating disorders like anorexia.

According to Verónica Alcalá Herrera, a researcher at UNAM's Faculty of Psychology (FP), this is the case. She says that teens in this situation don't get as much schooling because they stop or suspend their classes. Some of them also get pregnant or look for a partner at a young age. "We must think that, biologically, hormones have a purpose: to increase sexual interest in the search for it," she says.

For many adolescents, reaching the age of 15 is an illusion, a process in which they stop being girls and become women. But it is also a turning point, from the point of view of human development, because they begin a new process: sexual and reproductive maturity; however, it will still be one or two years before their organism is regulated. Even though this is a neurobiological effect, it is also related to psychological and social factors.

In the last study conducted in Mexico, in 2016, it was observed that, both in the country's capital and in Xalapa, Veracruz, the average age of menarche is 11.4 years. "If older literature is reviewed, we can find a decrease in the age of first menstruation during the 20th century and early 21st century."

When talking about early menarche, "we must consider what is the average age at which this physiological process appears in a given population; that was the reason that led us to carry out the study where we calculated the age of menarche in Xalapa and Mexico City because it was said to be before the age of 11, but we were not so sure that this was the case in Mexico."

One of the questions that intrigue the scientific community is why menarche comes earlier. Among the explanations is that for a minor to begin menstruating, she must be of a certain weight and height. "We know that in the Mexican population, girls tend to be obese, which makes them reach the required weight and height earlier, since lipid metabolism is involved in reproductive maturity," and this would be one of the reasons why Mexican girls have their first menstruation at an earlier age.

Psychosocial pressures are another factor involved in this earlier age. High levels of stress at an early age impact the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal system, which favors early reproductive maturity.

Research has found that having your period early might cause or exacerbate symptoms of depression.
Research has found that having your period early might cause or exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Early Menarche Linked to Depressive Symptoms and Non-Productive Coping Strategies in Young Women

The research group she leads found symptoms of depression in a group of young women with early menarche compared to regular menarche, "and, in addition, something that research had not reported as a product of applying a psychological coping instrument to this early physiological process was that early menarche showed less use of non-productive coping strategies."

What does this mean? Coping strategies can be productive or non-productive. In the first case, the minors are optimistic, perceive things more lightly, seek solutions to setbacks, and do not let the problem overwhelm them; in the second case, they react aggressively, try to avoid conflicts, and are impulsive; that is, they are focused on emotion rather than the problem and thus make poor decisions.

"Then, the girls who took part in our study and were labeled as having early menarche said that, compared to girls with regular menarche, they use less anger and aggression to solve problems, don't avoid conflicts, and are less indifferent to problems," she said.

"This piqued our interest and prompted us to make another comparison: of the girls classified as early menstruators, we divided them into two groups: those who had more time to start their first menstrual period (four to six years) and those who had one to three years. "We discovered that the first used fewer non-productive strategies than the second," said the university academic.

The explanation would be that depressive symptoms are more associated with the elevation of female hormones; the literature refers to the relationship between estrogen and depression. However, coping strategies are not linked to hormones but to the experiences that the girl acquires after the onset of menstruation. For example, "young women, having older features, have to deal with the siege of some men who see them, flirt with them, and say compliments that make them uncomfortable."

Also, she said, "with the responsibilities that adults give them, but, in addition, with their impulses, such as the boy they like." The young woman who started her period early and has been menstruating for a longer period has learned that non-productive strategies are ineffective, so she stops using anger, impulsivity, and avoidance; she appears to have matured a little more. That is what we found in the research project.

It is critical that the family, particularly parents, accompany girls and adolescents during this stage, particularly in infancy, to provide them with feelings of trust, love, and protection to prevent them from feeling anguish, particularly with girls in early menarche, and to help them accept their gender and, with it, menstruation. As long as they are accompanied, given information, and told that menstruation is not a bad thing, the strong stress they feel can be avoided.

In the educational area, guidance on the subject is required, both for teachers and girls; generate materials that foster empathy, compassion, tolerance, and accompaniment, and include boys. It would be ideal to work with both sexes; it cannot be that this topic, like any other sexuality issue, is dealt with separately, with girls on the one hand and boys on the other. This education should begin in childhood and not be postponed until adolescence.

Men have their process, spermarche (the first ejaculation that occurs in adolescents), although it is not much talked about. "Boys experience it in complete solitude, and for young men, it is not easy to identify precisely when it occurs; it is not as clear a sign as menstruation, which is why it is difficult to study it."