Using sex differences in psychopathology to study causal mechanisms: unifying issues and research strategies

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2003 Nov;44(8):1092-115. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00194.


Background: Although there is an extensive literature, both speculative and empirical, on postulated differences between males and females in their rates of particular types of disorder, very little is known about the mechanisms that underlie these sex differences. The study of mechanisms is important because it may provide clues on aetiological processes. The review seeks to outline what is known, what are the methodological hazards that must be dealt with, and the research strategies that may be employed.

Methods: We note the need for representative general samples, and for adequate measurement and significance testing if valid conclusions are to be drawn. We put forward three levels of causes that have to be considered: a genetically determined distal basic starting point; the varied consequences of being male or female; and the proximal risk or protective factors that are more directly implicated in the causal mechanisms that predispose to psychopathology. In delineating these, we argue that three key sets of evidential criteria have to be met: a) that the risk factors differ between males and females; b) that they provide for risk or protection within each sex; and c) that when introduced into a causal model, they eliminate or reduce the sex differences in the disorders being studied.

Results: A male excess mainly applies to early onset disorders that involve some kind of neurodevelopmental impairment. A female excess mainly applies to adolescent-onset emotional disorders. No variables have yet met all the necessary criteria but some good leads are available. The possible research strategies that may be employed are reviewed.

Conclusions: The systematic investigation of sex differences constitutes an invaluable tool for the study of the causal processes concerned with psychopathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Causality
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Psychopathology*
  • Sex Factors