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One-Time Intervention can Lower Teens’ Depression Risk

Update Date: Sep 22, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Depression is a serious mental disorder that can lead to fatal consequences when left untreated. In a new study, researchers analyzed the effects of a low-cost, one-time intervention program and discovered that the program could prevent the number of depressive symptoms from increasing in teens.

"We were amazed that a brief exposure to the message that people can change, during a key transition - the first few weeks of high school - could prevent increases in symptoms of depression," stated lead researcher David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, who is a psychological scientist. "It doesn't come close to solving the whole problem. Yet finding anything promising has the potential to be important because prevention is far better than treatment - not only for financial reasons but also because it avoids human suffering."

In this longitudinal study, Yeager and graduate student Adriana Sum Miu of Emory University recruited about 600 teens from three high schools that were in the ninth grade. At the start of the school year, the teens were randomly assigned to the intervention or the control program. The students and the teachers were not informed about which program they were a part of.

In the intervention program, the students read a passage about how people's personalities can change along with an article about brain plasticity. The passage was focused on educating the students about how being bullied or being a bully was not fixed in their nature. The passage also aimed to get students to see that not all bullies were "bad" people. The students then had to write their own thoughts about how personalities can change. In the control group, the students read a passage about how people can change their athletic ability.

During the follow-up, which occurred nine months later, the researchers found that teens from the control group experienced a 39 percent increase in clinically significant depressive symptoms. Teens from the intervention group did not have an increase in these symptoms even if they were bullied. Despite the positive results from this study, the researchers are unsure about the long-term effects that this type of intervention has on teens.

"The findings replicate in three independent samples, but we know almost nothing about the boundary conditions of these effects or whether they will continue to show up in future studies," Yeager said in the press release. "For example, will this intervention work equally well for all students? What symptoms are most affected or least affected? Are there any negative side-effects? We think timing really matters - will the intervention work even just a few months later in freshman year? Could you do it one-on-one in clinical practice? We don't have good answers to these questions yet."

The study, "Preventing Symptoms of Depression by Teaching Adolescents That People Can Change," was published in the Association for Psychological Science's journal, Clinical Psychological Science.

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