The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Despite Challenges of Pandemic, Depression Study Finds Silver Linings

Illustration of teen doing teletherapy by Olga Strelnikova / iStockIn 2018, I began a multi-year clinical trial to compare the effectiveness of two approaches to preventing depression in teens. One of the approaches is an online intervention -- an app -- called CATCH-IT and the other is an in-person group therapy intervention.

When we started recruiting teens to participate in the trial just this past winter, we encountered a number of challenges. It was difficult to get teens and their parents to commit to attending the weekly group therapy sessions, and to fill out the assessments we needed for our evaluation. Because we planned to hold these sessions at the clinics where our participants received their primary care, geography determined who could participate. We were busy working through these challenges throughout the early spring.

Then the pandemic hit, and with it we noticed a spike in the number of teens we were encountering who were reporting significant struggles with depression and suicidal thinking. At this point it’s too early to determine whether or not the stress of COVID accounts for the symptoms we are identifying, but regardless, we have been busy referring teens to therapists in their communities, rather than enrolling them in our study. Clearly these teens need more than we can offer in a prevention trial. We are grateful that we have been able to identify so many teens who are in need of immediate support, and to facilitate their connection to those who can offer them the help they need.

For teens with milder symptoms who are at risk of depression, and who are therefore good candidates for our study, we’ve had to reassess the way we had originally planned to conduct our research. The challenges of COVID have tied many researchers’ hands -- not being able to see people in person can prevent a lot of research from happening at all. But for us, despite the challenges presented by COVID, we have also recognized that the pandemic has allowed us to make our interventions more accessible, and has enabled us to more easily reach participants for enrollments and assessments.

The main change we had to make in our research strategy was to switch our in-person group therapy model to live online sessions. Fortunately, research shows that telehealth is just as effective as in-person therapy, even for groups, and the pandemic has made telehealth much more widely accepted and available. For our purposes, moving our in-person groups to an online format improves our study design by making the two programs we are comparing much more similar: instead of comparing the CATCH-IT app to in-person sessions, we’re now comparing two online interventions to see which is more effective and for whom.

Moving everything online has also made the group therapy much more accessible. Teens and their parents no longer need to drive to a clinic on a Sunday evening, squeezing the session in between soccer practice and homework. Since life has slowed down and schedules have eased up, teens and their families have more time, and in many cases more motivation to participate. Some teens are more comfortable interacting through a screen than sitting in a room with strangers. So far in our trial, every participant has come to every online group session, and has completed every piece of paperwork we need -- an unheard-of scenario in pre-COVID times.

In addition, we’ve been able to open up the study to more teens in more locations, and to run groups across communities. Urban, suburban, and rural teens, previously separated by geography into separate group sessions, now meet together online (very successfully, I might add). Those who live too far away to have the option of a group therapy model can now participate in it. Since we can’t be in doctors’ offices to recruit participants, we’ve changed our strategy there, too, introducing a public health campaign that reaches anyone who is interested across three states.

Although COVID has been challenging for many teens and has challenged us from a study design perspective, the current circumstances have enabled us to identify and refer many more teens with serious mental health concerns, and also have enabled more teens from different places to access our interventions. We’ll continue to follow the participants in our programs over the next 18 months and will assess how they’re doing. Even after the pandemic ends, we are planning to use what we’ve learned during this difficult time so that we’re able to make prevention interventions accessible to more people in the future. Having to adjust our methods has given us better data, and eliminated many of the barriers to mental health care for teens and their families.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D., is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, as well as the inaugural director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which aim to research, develop, and evaluate programs to prevent the onset of depression and other mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

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Tips for Preventing Depression While Social Distancing

Daughter visits mother during quarantine on other side of glassThe challenges of isolation and loneliness have become apparent over the past several months of social distancing. Not only are we physically separated from our friends and extended families, but we’re concerned about their health and wellbeing as well as our own. We may be juggling childcare, homeschooling, and our own work. Or we may be wondering how we’ll support ourselves through this. We may know those who are sick, or who are high-risk, or who are essential workers putting themselves at risk for our sake. We may have lost people close to us. And we may feel powerless to do anything.

The situations that we find ourselves in can be overwhelming, and can contribute to low mood, irritability, and other potential depressive symptoms. If these symptoms persist and severely impact your day-to-day functioning, it can be a good time to check in with your doctor or a therapist. Many providers have moved to telehealth during this time, so it’s possible to connect to extra support. But if you just notice your mood dropping a bit or you feel a bit unmotivated, you may want to try out new strategies to prevent further depressive symptoms or bounce back from these moments of low mood.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a time of adjustment and loss. Many of us will experience normal mood fluctuations such as low mood and sadness related to the loss of life the way it used to be. As with any loss, reactions will come and go, and feel different from day to day. Being gentle with yourself and others is important for maintaining mental health. For example, focus on “good enough” instead of “perfect” or “how I would usually do this.” Think of tasks that help you to feel productive, need to be done, and give you joy, and engage in a mix of those things. Let go of getting everything done. When you do achieve something, celebrate it.

It’s also important to remember that every person is different and will have certain strategies that work better for them in maintaining mental health. Different circumstances and situations will call for different approaches. Consider this a time of experimentation: try new strategies, but don’t be afraid to give them up and use others if they don’t work for you.

Social support from family and friends can help to prevent symptoms of depression. The lack of close personal contact during this time of social distancing is a challenge and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. While we may not be able to interact with one another in the ways we’re used to, there are plenty of ways to stay connected.

If you’re lucky enough to be social distancing with your family, take some time out to connect with your kids or spouse. Even small moments of connection can improve your mood. When it comes to technology, find what works best for you, whether it’s virtual parties or one-on-one chats with a friend. While social media is one way to connect, it may be less helpful than picking up the phone and calling or FaceTiming. And just as in life before, know your limits. Having time to yourself to recharge is still important, and if you’re feeling Zoom overload, it’s perfectly okay to say no to a virtual happy hour.

When you’re interacting with others or when you’re alone, don’t forget to notice the good or joyful moments — that can do a lot to improve your mood. Did you have a good laugh about something silly with your family? Did you get a sense of satisfaction from completing that puzzle that’s been sitting in your living room for years? Notice when those moments come up and what you’re doing, and look for opportunities to engage in more of them. Along those lines, you can start tracking three good things or three things that went well each day. In addition to writing these three things down, write what made them go well or what caused them. Research has demonstrated that doing this daily for a month can help to improve your mood and increase happiness.

Repetitive negative thinking can contribute to depressive symptoms, so it can be helpful to take time to notice thoughts that are connected to feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions that bring your mood down. Once you notice these thoughts you can make efforts to reframe them or focus your attention on more helpful ones. If you notice that a bothersome thought keeps coming up, see if you can switch it up. For example, “I’ll be stuck at home forever” could be turned into, “I feel stuck right now, and this is a temporary situation. I’m looking forward to seeing my dad after this is over.”

Taking care of your physical health can have a strong effect as well. You may see a lot of runners and bikers out in your neighborhood these days, and they’ve got the right idea. Exercise has been found to be effective in preventing depression. Just engaging in something active can help — check out streaming yoga or old-school Richard Simmons videos. Take a walk around your house or challenge yourself to a stair climb. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you get moving, and your mood will likely improve as a result.

Though it can be hard to put down your phone or turn off the news, getting enough sleep (but not too much) can help keep your mood stable and make it easier to roll with the punches. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, work on improving your sleep hygiene. Start preparing an hour before bedtime by turning off screens, doing some relaxation, and clearing your head.

Finally, remember that it’s not about never feeling low — it’s about bouncing back from the low mood. Honor the fact that this is a difficult, sad, and anxiety-provoking time. Remind yourself that social distancing and staying at home are temporary. Think of other difficult times in your life and what strategies you used to get through those times. If we are mindful of our thoughts and intentional about the strategies we use throughout the day, we may be able to maintain good mental health — despite all of the challenges we’re facing.

Further resources:

Katherine R. Buchholz, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research scientist working on depression prevention research at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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I recently felt on myself what depression is. True, this was accompanied by my menopause, which began just before quarantine. And ... Read More
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Very good Tips for Preventing Depression While Social Distancing... Read More
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13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide

By now, parents and professionals have reacted to the new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Mental health advocates and school administrators have highlighted the risks of depicting suicide as a means of revenge, of dramatizing teen suicide, and of showing school counselors as uncaring and ineffective. I would be remiss if I did not add my voice to others' by expressing my dismay that this program exposes teens to such unhealthy messages about such an important topic, and that teen depression is presented as a malady that can only be addressed through suicide.

Rather than repeating the many critiques of this series, my purpose here is to share correct messages about adolescent depression and suicide that we, as professionals and parents, should know and should be sharing with our children. Of course this is a difficult topic to broach with adolescents, but given that so many teens have watched this series already, we must embrace this opportunity to teach our children, and ourselves, about youth depression and suicide. This conversation is particularly important now, in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month.

In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are particularly high among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual youth. While youth depression and youth suicide are distinct concerns, approximately half of all teens that die by suicide have a mood disorder, such as depression, at the time. Adolescent depression is quite common, with approximately 11 percent of all teens experiencing depression during adolescence. Although youth depression is prevalent and impairing, we now have available numerous depression prevention and treatment protocols that work. Thus, most teens who struggle with depression go on to lead healthy and productive lives.

How do we know if a teen might be experiencing depression or considering suicide? Among other symptoms, signs of youth depression include low mood or irritability, lack of interest in activities, a change to sleep or eating patterns, reduced concentration, fatigue, low self-esteem, and thoughts of death or suicide. Of course all teens experience such symptoms now and then. We worry about teens that experience a cluster of these symptoms, and when these symptoms persist over a period of at least two weeks.

Likewise, we worry about teens that exhibit signs of suicide. Sometimes these signs are subtle, such as giving away prized possessions, withdrawing from friends, or exhibiting significant behavioral changes, such as intense fights with family and friends. Teens thinking about suicide may also provide verbal cues, such as, “I wish I were dead” and “It’s not worth it anymore.” Also, many people who contemplate suicide do so because they believe they are a burden to others, and that they will be doing others a favor if they are no longer here. Thus, if you hear a teen say, “My family would be better off without me,” it is important to take action. Remember that 50-70 percent of people who make a suicide attempt communicate their intent prior to acting, mostly through such actions or verbal cues. Thus, if you recognize any of these signs, it is important to ASK. Although many of us find it scary to ask about suicide, or worry that asking about suicide will give someone the idea to attempt suicide, we know from numerous studies that talking about suicide will not lead to suicidal behavior.

How do you ask a teen if s/he might be thinking about suicide? Ask the question directly. It is okay to ask a teen if s/he has ever felt like it would be better if they were dead, or if, when very upset, they have experienced suicidal thoughts. If a teen acknowledges suicidal thoughts, s/he should be provided reassurance that help is available, and should be brought for an evaluation and treatment immediately. It’s important to remember that most people who talk about suicide do not really want to die. In fact, most suicides are not impulsive acts, and most people who contemplate suicide give many cues of their intentions, making suicide a largely preventable form of death in the United States.

The primary danger of 13 Reasons Why is that it reinforces damaging myths about youth depression and suicide. Now that this series has been released, and knowing that our teens may well have watched it, our best course of action is to counter those damaging myths by sharing important truths about teen depression and suicide.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Avenevoli, S., Swendsen, J., He, J., Burstein, M., & Merikangas, K. R. (2015). Major depression in the national comorbidity survey–adolescent supplement: Prevalence, correlates, and treatment. Journal of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(1), 37-44. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.010
Berkowitz, Larry (2017). Suicide Assessment and Intervention Training for Mental Health Professionals [PowerPoint slides]. NEAS, 2400 Post Road, Warwick, RI.
Burton, C. M., Marshal, M. P., Chisolm, D. J., Sucato, G. S., & Friedman, M. S. (2013). Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(3), 394-402.
Gould, M.S., Marrocco, F.A., Kleinman, M., Thomas, J.G., Mosstkoff, K., Cote, J., & Davies, M. (2005). Evaluating iatrogenic risk of youth suicide screening programs: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 293(13), 1635-43.
Joiner, T. (2009). The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status. Psychological Science Agenda, 23(6).
Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Hawkins, J., Harris, W. A., ... & Whittle, L. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Surveillance Summaries. Volume 63, Number SS-4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nadworny, E. (2016). Middle School Suicides Reach an All-Time High. www.NPR.org
Nock, M.K., Green, J.G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K.A., Sampson, N.A., Zaslavsky, A.M., & Kessler, R.C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicide behavior among adolescents: results from the Nation Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-10.
QPR Institute. QPR Online Gatekeeper Training for ORGANIZATIONS [Training modules]. Retrieved from https://www.qprinstitute.com/organization-training
Robins, E., Gassner, S., Kayes, J., Wilkinson Jr, R. H., & Murphy, G. E. (1959). The communication of suicidal intent: a study of 134 consecutive cases of successful (completed) suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 115(8), 724-733.
The JED Foundation. (2017). 13 Reasons Why: Talking Points [Leaflet]. Retrieved from https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
World Health Orgranization. (2004, September 8). Suicide huge but preventable public health problem, says WHO [Online forum post]. Retrieved from WHO Media centre website: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2004/pr61/en/

 

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I was encouraged to read about this powerful, creative response by some Michigan high school students: "13 Reasons Why Not." https... Read More
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Preventing Depression in Young People

This policy brief originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2016 Research & Action Report from the Wellesley Centers for Women as part of the multi-media series Advancing the Status of Women & Girls, Families & Communities: Policy Recommendations for the Next U.S. President.


Depression is Prevalent but Prevention Programs Are Limited

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide—it is the most common psychiatric disorder in the U.S., and is particularly common among lower income populations, and among women beginning in adolescence. The average age of onset for depression is 15, and about 20 percent of all people will have experienced an episode of depression by the end of adolescence. Youth depression is associated with a host of negative and long-term consequences, including poorer school performance, difficult peer and family relationships, increased risk of substance abuse, and poorer functional outcomes in adulthood. Of particular note is the connection between youth depression and suicide. Although not all people who commit suicide were depressed at the time, depression and suicidal behavior are indeed linked. Suicide is a tremendous problem in the U.S. and is the second leading cause of death among American adolescents.

Although depression is among the most treatable of all mental illnesses, and although we have evidence-based treatment approaches for depressed youth, the reality is that only about half of all depressed children and adolescents ever receive treatment, and only about half of those who do receive treatment actually improve as a result. Nearly all of those who recover from depression will experience a subsequent depressive episode within a few years. Specifically, 40 percent of youth who have experienced a past episode of depression will relapse within two years, and 75 percent will relapse within five years. This means that a typical 15 year-old who develops an episode of depression, if she is fortunate enough to receive treatment and benefit from it, will experience another depressive episode while she is graduating from high school and transitioning to adulthood.

Although nearly one in five young people experience an episode of depression by the end of adolescence, treatment protocols for youth depression only help about half of those they target, and relapse is common and debilitating. Funding for depression prevention efforts is limited, and preventive programs are difficult to access.

Promising Prevention Efforts

Youth depression is a problem of major proportions, affecting millions of children and families and interfering with children’s social, emotional, and academic functioning. Although evidence-based treatments for youth depression have been found to work well, treatment resources often are difficult to access. Most adolescents who recover experience relapse, and the long-term consequences of youth depression are significant.

Recently, promising research has suggested that depression is among the most preventable of major mental illnesses. We now know of strategies that work to prevent youth depression, including providing cognitive behavioral interventions to adolescents at high risk and helping youth to strengthen social relationships. Based on this research, many European colleagues now encourage a focus on preventive efforts for youth at risk for depression. Although funders and policymakers in the U.S. support preventive efforts for medical concerns, such as healthy eating and exercise to address heart disease, prevention, unfortunately, is often overlooked in mental health. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners should focus attention on identifying youth at risk for depression, providing evidence-based preventive interventions to at-risk youth and families, and assisting at-risk youth in accessing preventive and/or treatment resources, as needed.

Approaches & Recommendations

Recommendations for enhancing a focus on the prevention of youth depression include:

  • Increase use of depression prevention interventions by increasing funding for research. Although several depression prevention interventions have been found to decrease the onset of depressive symptoms or disorders among at-risk youth, such programs are still not readily available in community-based mental health settings, and many practitioners do not know how to implement evidence-based protocols. More funding is needed for large-scale effectiveness trials that examine ways of disseminating evidence-based interventions in real-world settings and for large-scale trials that compare the efficacy of different evidence-based programs for different populations.
  • Attend to family processes that influence depression risk and that promote depression prevention. Research suggests that parental depression is a significant risk factor for depression onset in youth, and that family processes both maintain and may help alleviate depression. Policymakers, funders, and practitioners must attend to the important role of families in identifying and supporting youth at risk for depression who are appropriate for preventive efforts. In addition, interventions to prevent youth depression may benefit from a focus on enhancing family understanding of youth depression, improving parenting skills, and also on addressing parental depressive symptoms that may affect the efficacy of interventions targeting at-risk youth.
  • Integrate youth depression prevention efforts into places where youth are most readily accessed. Efforts to prevent youth medical concerns are an established focus of public health strategies, resulting in, for example, vaccinations from physicians and auditory screenings Integrate youth depression prevention efforts into places where youth are most readily accessed. Efforts to prevent youth medical concerns are an established focus of public health strategies, resulting in, for example, vaccinations from physicians and auditory screenings at school. Unfortunately, routine screening for depression and suicide risk is generally overlooked both in primary care and in schools, although these are the places that youth are most readily accessed and serviced. Policymakers, funders, and practitioners must support additional training for school and medical personnel in identifying at-risk youth, evaluating youth for mental health concerns, and connecting youth to appropriate mental health services. Additionally, research is needed to evaluate primary care and school-based depression prevention interventions, so that, when at-risk adolescents are identified, evidence-based depression prevention services are readily available in locations that are comfortable and accessible to those in need.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

This is a repost from an article originally published on this blog September 6, 2013.

National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) is a time to both raise awareness of suicide as a national public health issue, and to think critically about how suicide can be prevented. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (Hoyert & Xu, 2012), and, in 2011, nearly 16 percent of adolescents in the United States reported seriously considering suicide. When thinking about preventing adolescent suicide, it is important to consider factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as depression. Suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, and over half of the adolescents who completed suicide had a mood disorder at the time (Bridge, Goldstein & Brent, 2006; Nock et al., 2013). Fortunately, a number of researchers have developed empirically-supported interventions to prevent the onset of depression in teens, and prevention efforts that target adolescents at risk for depression may ultimately prove helpful in preventing suicidal behaviors as well. During this national week of suicide prevention awareness, it is important to recognize the link between depressive illness and suicide in youth, and the promising role of depression prevention in potentially preventing suicidal behavior.

Most of us bring our children to see their doctors annually, because prevention-focused well-child care is a cornerstone of pediatric practice. Unfortunately, prevention is generally not part of the equation when it comes to youth mental health. With limited health care dollars and limited mental health resources available, clinicians and policymakers tend to focus on alleviating mental health concerns once they arise. Yet research suggests that many young people do NOT get treatment for mental health concerns once they arise, and mental health concerns, such as depression, are associated not only with suicide risk, but also with long-term adverse impacts on educational attainment, relationship functioning, risk of substance abuse, and future depressive episodes, even among those who receive treatment. Moreover, of those teens who DO receive treatment for depression, only about half fully recover and, among those who do recover, relapse is quite common.

Treating youth depression once it emerges may be much more distressing, and much less effective, than identifying early symptoms of illness and treating them before they develop into a full-blown disorder. Prevention approaches have the potential to reach a large number of adolescents, and may be more acceptable than treatment because services can be rendered in non-clinical settings (e.g., schools, primary care settings), and do not require adolescents to identify themselves as ill.

So how can adolescent depression be prevented? The core of many depression prevention programs is resilience. Not all adolescents with risk factors for depression develop the disorder; the ones who do not develop depression are resilient, which means they have the emotional skills and/or the social supports to “bounce back” from adversity. Many programs to prevent adolescent depression are designed to teach coping and emotional regulation skills, and/or to strengthen supportive relationships, in order to provide youth at elevated risk with the tools they need to be resilient.

Research on the prevention of youth depression is quite encouraging! For example, in our longitudinal, multi-site study of adolescents at risk for depression, we found that teens who participated in a group cognitive-behavioral prevention program were less likely to experience a depressive disorder at nine- (Garber et al., 2009) and 32- (Beardslee et al., in press) months follow-up, relative to at-risk teens who were assigned to a treatment-as-usual control group. Likewise, our colleagues working on the Penn Resiliency Project have found that children and adolescents who participate in their school-based cognitive-behavioral program are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than are children and adolescents assigned to control conditions. Similarly, in a study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy approaches to preventing youth depression, Young and colleagues found that teens who participated in a skills-based intervention targeting interpersonal role disputes, role transitions and interpersonal deficits reported fewer depressive symptoms at six-months follow-up than teens who were assigned to a school counseling control group.

Here at WCW, we are currently studying the efficacy of a primary-care, Internet-based depression-prevention program for adolescents who are at risk for the development of depression, based on a past history of depression and/or current symptoms of depressive disorder. While many of these youth depression prevention programs are still being evaluated in randomized controlled research trials, early results suggest that prevention programs may work. It seems we can indeed provide teens with strategies that they can use over time, as they encounter stress and challenging life events, so that they are able to stay healthy and avoid the onset of significant mental health concerns.

What are the risks for depression in adolescents? When should you be worried about your teen? When we talk about risks for depression, we often think in terms of specific factors (i.e., factors identified through empirical research to be associated specifically with increased risk for youth depression) and nonspecific factors (i.e., factors that are associated with increased risk for a range of disorders, including depression). Specific risk factors for adolescent depression include having low self-esteem, being female, developing a negative body image, low social support, a negative cognitive style, and ineffective coping. The strongest specific risk factor for the development of depression, above and beyond these other factors, is having a parent with depressive illness. In fact, offspring of depressed parents are at about a two- to four-fold increased risk of developing depressive disorders, relative to children of parents without depression. Nonspecific risk factors that also increase risk of youth depression include poverty, exposure to violence, social isolation, child maltreatment, and family breakup.

Although the presence of these risk factors is associated with an increased risk for youth depression, as noted above, many at-risk children are resilient and never develop a depressive disorder. Having supportive adults present, strong family relationships, strong peer relationships, coping skills, and skills in emotion regulation all can contribute to resiliency. Even depressed parents can promote resilience in their teens by encouraging teens to engage in outside activities, maintain supportive relationships, and recognize themselves as separate from issues and concerns that are affecting other family members.

How can you recognize signs and symptoms of depression in your child, and how can you help? Depressed teens are often sad or irritable, and may exhibit a range of additional symptoms, such as withdrawal from friends and usual activities, sleep difficulties (i.e., difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time), somatic complaints (i.e., headaches, stomach aches), poor school performance, self-critical talk, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sitting still, and may start writing or thinking about death. If you are concerned about your teen, then express your concern openly and honestly. Tell your child that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if he is experiencing suicidal thoughts – asking will NOT make him contemplate suicide or take his own life. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for assistance and referrals. Let your child know that treatments are available, and that you are going to work together to get your child the help she needs.

National Suicide Prevention Week is an opportune time to consider the many ways that suicidal thoughts and actions can be combated, including preventing the onset of depression in adolescents, and getting teens help if they are depressed already.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Weersing, V.R., Clarke, G.N., Porta, G., Hollon, S.D., Gladstone, T.R.G., Gallop, R., Lynch, F.L., Iyengar, S., DeBar, L., & Garber, J. (in press). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: Longer-term effects. Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

Bridge, J. A., Goldstein, T. R., & Brent, D. A. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 372-394.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(4), 1-168.

Garber, J., Clarke, G.N., Weersing, V.R., Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Gladstone, T.R.G., DeBar, L.L., Lynch, F.L., D’Angelo, E., Hollon, S.D., Shamseddeen, W., & Iyengar, S. (2009). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 2215-2224.

Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Report, 61(6), 1-65.

Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-310.  

 

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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

depressedteen

National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) is a time to both raise awareness of suicide as a national public health issue, and to think critically about how suicide can be prevented. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (Hoyert & Xu, 2012), and, in 2011, nearly 16 percent of adolescents in the United States reported seriously considering suicide. When thinking about preventing adolescent suicide, it is important to consider factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as depression. Suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, and over half of the adolescents who completed suicide had a mood disorder at the time (Bridge, Goldstein & Brent, 2006; Nock et al., 2013). Fortunately, a number of researchers have developed empirically-supported interventions to prevent the onset of depression in teens, and prevention efforts that target adolescents at risk for depression may ultimately prove helpful in preventing suicidal behaviors as well. During this national week of suicide prevention awareness, it is important to recognize the link between depressive illness and suicide in youth, and the promising role of depression prevention in potentially preventing suicidal behavior.

Most of us bring our children to see their doctors annually, because prevention-focused well-child care is a cornerstone of pediatric practice. Unfortunately, prevention is generally not part of the equation when it comes to youth mental health. With limited health care dollars and limited mental health resources available, clinicians and policymakers tend to focus on alleviating mental health concerns once they arise. Yet research suggests that many young people do NOT get treatment for mental health concerns once they arise, and mental health concerns, such as depression, are associated not only with suicide risk, but also with long-term adverse impacts on educational attainment, relationship functioning, risk of substance abuse, and future depressive episodes, even among those who receive treatment. Moreover, of those teens who DO receive treatment for depression, only about half fully recover and, among those who do recover, relapse is quite common.

blogpullquoteDepressionLinkTreating youth depression once it emerges may be much more distressing, and much less effective, than identifying early symptoms of illness and treating them before they develop into a full-blown disorder. Prevention approaches have the potential to reach a large number of adolescents, and may be more acceptable than treatment because services can be rendered in non-clinical settings (e.g., schools, primary care settings), and do not require adolescents to identify themselves as ill.

So how can adolescent depression be prevented? The core of many depression prevention programs is resilience. Not all adolescents with risk factors for depression develop the disorder; the ones who do not develop depression are resilient, which means they have the emotional skills and/or the social supports to “bounce back” from adversity. Many programs to prevent adolescent depression are designed to teach coping and emotional regulation skills, and/or to strengthen supportive relationships, in order to provide youth at elevated risk with the tools they need to be resilient.

Research on the prevention of youth depression is quite encouraging! For example, in our longitudinal, multi-site study of adolescents at risk for depression, we found that teens who participated in a group cognitive-behavioral prevention program were less likely to experience a depressive disorder at nine- (Garber et al., 2009) and 32- (Beardslee et al., in press) months follow-up, relative to at-risk teens who were assigned to a treatment-as-usual control group. Likewise, our colleagues working on the Penn Resiliency Project have found that children and adolescents who participate in their school-based cognitive-behavioral program are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than are children and adolescents assigned to control conditions. Similarly, in a study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy approaches to preventing youth depression, Young and colleagues found that teens who participated in a skills-based intervention targeting interpersonal role disputes, role transitions and interpersonal deficits reported fewer depressive symptoms at six-months follow-up than teens who were assigned to a school counseling control group.

Here at WCW, we are currently studying the efficacy of a primary-care, Internet-based depression-prevention program for adolescents who are at risk for the development of depression, based on a past history of depression and/or current symptoms of depressive disorder. While many of these youth depression prevention programs are still being evaluated in randomized controlled research trials, early results suggest that prevention programs may work. It seems we can indeed provide teens with strategies that they can use over time, as they encounter stress and challenging life events, so that they are able to stay healthy and avoid the onset of significant mental health concerns.

What are the risks for depression in adolescents? When should you be worried about your teen? When we talk about risks for depression, we often think in terms of specific factors (i.e., factors identified through empirical research to be associated specifically with increased risk for youth depression) and nonspecific factors (i.e., factors that are associated with increased risk for a range of disorders, including depression). Specific risk factors for adolescent depression include having low self-esteem, being female, developing a negative body image, low social support, a negative cognitive style, and ineffective coping. The strongest specific risk factor for the development of depression, above and beyond these other factors, is having a parent with depressive illness. In fact, offspring of depressed parents are at about a two- to four-fold increased risk of developing depressive disorders, relative to children of parents without depression. Nonspecific risk factors that also increase risk of youth depression include poverty, exposure to violence, social isolation, child maltreatment, and family breakup.

Although the presence of these risk factors is associated with an increased risk for youth depression, as noted above, many at-risk children are resilient and never develop a depressive disorder. Having supportive adults present, strong family relationships, strong peer relationships, coping skills, and skills in emotion regulation all can contribute to resiliency. Even depressed parents can promote resilience in their teens by encouraging teens to engage in outside activities, maintain supportive relationships, and recognize themselves as separate from issues and concerns that are affecting other family members.

How can you recognize signs and symptoms of depression in your child, and how can you help? Depressed teens are often sad or irritable, and may exhibit a range of additional symptoms, such as withdrawal from friends and usual activities, sleep difficulties (i.e., difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time), somatic complaints (i.e., headaches, stomach aches), poor school performance, self-critical talk, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sitting still, and may start writing or thinking about death. If you are concerned about your teen, then express your concern openly and honestly. Tell your child that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if he is experiencing suicidal thoughts – asking will NOT make him contemplate suicide or take his own life. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for assistance and referrals. Let your child know that treatments are available, and that you are going to work together to get your child the help she needs.

National Suicide Prevention Week is an opportune time to consider the many ways that suicidal thoughts and actions can be combated, including preventing the onset of depression in adolescents, and getting teens help if they are depressed already.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Weersing, V.R., Clarke, G.N., Porta, G., Hollon, S.D., Gladstone, T.R.G., Gallop, R., Lynch, F.L., Iyengar, S., DeBar, L., & Garber, J. (in press). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: Longer-term effects. Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

Bridge, J. A., Goldstein, T. R., & Brent, D. A. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 372-394.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(4), 1-168.

Garber, J., Clarke, G.N., Weersing, V.R., Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Gladstone, T.R.G., DeBar, L.L., Lynch, F.L., D’Angelo, E., Hollon, S.D., Shamseddeen, W., & Iyengar, S. (2009). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 2215-2224.

Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Report, 61(6), 1-65.

Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-310.  

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Interdependency and Mental Health

Comforting

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, a fitting time to be mindful of the suffering caused by mental illness. Even though I am a psychiatrist, working daily with people diagnosed with mental illness, I am stunned by the statistics on the incidence of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in any 12 month period, 26.2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. That is one in four adults who are experiencing disturbing and often debilitating symptoms--the constant distress of an anxiety disorder, the aching despair of a major depression, the terror of psychosis. The lifetime incidence of mental illness is over 50 percent. These statistics tell us that if you have not been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, someone you know and love has. When you go to work today or even out with friends in the evening, see if you can identify the one in four people who has a mental illness. Don’t be surprised to walk away thinking there are none in your group. Also don’t be surprised to find out that you are wrong.

blogpullquoteInterdependencySo, where are all the people with mental illness? From what I hear in my office, many are hiding and suffering in silence for fear of being stigmatized, pitied, or seen as weak. American, Westernized culture plays a large role in this fear. The pervasive image of an American is a person who is strong, independent, and can “make it” on his or her own. There is no direct media campaign telling people who have a mental illness to stay in the closet, but the chronic cultural myth of the “self made man” acts as a reference point from which we all measure our worth. The more dependent you are on others, the less value you hold. This cultural bias is insidious and contributes to an environment that makes each of us hide our vulnerabilities behind a wall of shame at not being strong enough to manage our day to day lives on our own.

The idea that we are stronger on our own is destructive, dangerous, and undermines our natural physiology that works best in healthy interdependency. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Jilek Wolfgang, M.D., M.Sc. reports that people who develop a psychotic illness actually heal faster in a non-Westernized world. A stunning finding given that Western societies are known to have the most educated doctors and best hospitals in the world. So what accounts for the improvement? A lack of stigma. In the West, psychosis or the loss of reality testing is seen as the ultimate failure of individual strength. It is frightening and dangerous. On the other hand, in many parts of Africa, extended family and community reach out and embrace the individual with psychosis rather than fearing or shunning him.

Relational neuroscience offers some explanation for this finding. Researchers at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman, have discovered that the pain of social exclusion is registered in the exact area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, as the pain from a physical illness or injury. Because humans are meant to function best in healthy human connection, this area of the brain fires an alarm for things that are life threatening. The chronic pain of an acute physical injury or illness can be lethal, but Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT Theory) tells us that being socially rejected is every bit as dangerous. When we stigmatize and ostracize people with mental illness we increase their stress levels, decrease their ability to fight illness, and prolong their healing process.  

The range of functioning in the people I treat everyday is tremendous--from CEOs capable of running a company while having a mental illness to individuals on disability unable to work because of severe symptoms. Almost every person I see is hiding their diagnosis from at least one important person in their lives out of fear of the anticipated rejection. In this month of May let’s all open our eyes and our hearts to see and embrace someone with a mental illness and to support those who are suffering knowing full well that statistics show having a mental illness is not an individual failure nor a weakness. Mental illness is, well, an illness and the best hope for a speedy recovery is the support of extended families and friends. This cultural shift from pathological independence to healthy interdependence holds the power to heal many wounds and to improve the lives of all of us who will experience the pain of mental illness.

Amy Banks, M.D. is the director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Over the last ten years at the JBMTI, she has been integrating emerging neuroscience information with relational-cultural theory.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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