THE QUESTION Research has shown that teens who have trouble with peer relationships, who feel excluded socially or who have low self-esteem are more likely than other teens to become depressed. If they were to learn that such situations, and the personality traits that drive them, could change, might this stem the onset of depression?
THIS STUDY involved 599 ninth-grade students, just starting high school. About 75 percent reported having experienced some physical, verbal or social aggression. The students were randomly assigned to participate in one of two classroom exercises during the first few weeks of school. One group studied how people’s personalities, including socially relevant characteristics, can change and how social adversities — such as being “a loser” or not likable, or being bullied — need not be permanent. The others studied athletic abilities. About eight months later, at the end of the school year, teens who had learned about the possibility of change in personalities and social situations were 40 percent less likely than the others to have symptoms of depression — negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness and low self-esteem — even if they had been bullied.
WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Teens. About one in five teens, girls more than boys, experience depressive symptoms at some point. Because early signs — being negative and irritable, sulking and feeling misunderstood — can be seen as the normal moodiness of teenagers, depression can easily be missed. Left untreated, however, teen depression can lead to eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. It also is more likely to persist into or recur in adulthood.
CAVEATS Data on depressive symptoms came from the teens’ responses on questionnaires. The authors noted that the intervention did not reduce depressive symptoms so much as it substantially slowed increases in depressive symptoms that typically occur at this age, “slowing negative, self-reinforcing processes before they gain momentum.” Whether the method would work as a treatment for diagnosed depression was not tested.
FIND THIS STUDY Sept. 15 online issue of Clinical Psychological Science, at cpx.sagepub.com (click on “Online First”).
The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.