Severely Obese Teens Not Necessarily Unhappy

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As part of the ongoing debate on the effect of obesity and mental health in adolescents, a new study finds that severely obese adolescents are no more likely to be depressed than normal weight peers.

However, the study did find that white adolescents may be somewhat more vulnerable to psychological effects of obesity.

Researchers analyzed the relationship between severe obesity and depressive symptoms in a sample of non-Hispanic black and white adolescents over a three-year period.

"People assume that all obese adolescents are unhappy and depressed; that the more obese a teen may be, the greater the impact on his or her mental health," said Elizabeth Goodman, M.D., the lead author of the study. "Our findings suggest this assumption is false."

Researchers reviewed information obtained from 51 severely obese participants between grades 7-12 and an equal number of non-obese participants matched for age, gender and race.

Depressive symptoms were analyzed using a standard assessment tool at the study outset and reassessed two and three years later.

Participants were defined as having high depressive symptoms if they used antidepressant medication or had assessment scores at or above a level known to predict major depressive disorder.

Unlike other investigations, which included participants from obesity treatment clinics, the study found no relationship between participants' weight status and the likelihood of being depressed.

The authors note that obese teens coming to a clinic for treatment are likely to feel worse about their body size and shape than those not seeking treatment. Accordingly, the authors believe this community-based study (not clinic-based) may more appropriately represent the feelings of a majority of severely obese teenagers.

Of interest is the difference in ethnic or racial perceptions, as an association between obesity and higher depressive symptoms was seen only in white participants and only at the three-year assessment, not at baseline or at two years.

"As clinicians, we treat the entire person — body and mind — and we can't assume that weight loss will improve all our patients' mental health or that negative feelings run hand-in-hand with obesity," said Goodman, a visiting professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "Body size appears to have a greater impact on feelings of non-Hispanic white teens' than non-Hispanic black teens. We should be particularly vigilant about assessing for depression during regular visits among this group."

The study is published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

This article was provided to LiveScience by PsychCentral.