Stressful life events, differential vulnerability, and depressive symptoms: critique and new evidence

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

November 22, 2021


Depressive symptoms are disproportionately high among women and less educated individuals. One mechanism proposed to explain this is the differential vulnerability hypothesis—that these groups experience particularly strong increases in symptoms in response to stressful life events. We identify limitations to prior work and present evidence from a new approach to life stress research using the UK Household Longitudinal Study. Preliminarily, we replicate prior findings of differential vulnerability in between-individual models. Harnessing repeated measures, however, we show that apparent findings of differential vulnerability by both sex and education are artifacts of confounding. Men and women experience similar average increases in depressive symptoms after stressful life events. One exception is tentative evidence for a stronger association among women for events occurring to others in the household. We term this the “female vulnerability to network events” hypothesis and discuss with reference to Kessler and McLeod’s related “cost of caring” hypothesis.

Published in

Journal of Health and Social Behavior






Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (

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