School-Based Program Teaches Skills That Stave Off Depression

Roll over Prozac! Nipping depression in the bud by teaching thinking and problem-solving skills to children may be the wave of the future.

Findings

Today's schoolchildren are at a higher risk for depression than any previous generation. As many as 9% of children will experience a major depressive episode by the time they are 14 years old, and 20% will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school. Having suffered from depression as children, these young people are much more vulnerable to depression as adults.

Most psychological research has focused on treating depression after it begins. But psychologists Jane Gillham, Lisa Jaycox, Karen Reivich and Martin Seligman are attempting to prevent depression before it starts. Their innovative, school-based program teaches young people how to be optimistic in their thinking and problem-solving, thereby staving off depression. Specifically, children learn to identifythe negative beliefs they hold about themselves, others, and the world, and then learn how to replace their pessimistic beliefs with more positive ones. Children also learn to view failures and setbacks as temporary, instead of permanent; as specific to a time and place, instead of general; and as due to circumstances, rather than due to personal defects. For example, children are taught that one poor test grade doesn't mean they are dumb; it means they have to study harder for the next test.

To test whether these thinking patterns do indeed protect children from depression, Gilham and colleagues first identified 5th and 6th grade children whose scores on depression screening questionnaires showed them to be 'at risk' for depression. The researchers then met with half of these students in small groups to teach them the new skills. The groups met 90 minutes per week over the course of 12 weeks. The other half of the students-the control group-did not meet with the researchers. During the group meetings, students focused on the interpersonal problems commonly experienced by children at risk for depression, listed possible solutions to these problems, then evaluated the solutions in terms of their other goals. The students also practiced techniques for coping with parental conflict, enhancing their assertiveness, and relaxing.

Six months after this training period, the children who had learned the new skills had fewer depressive symptoms and better classroom behavior than did children in the control group. Even two years after the original study, children in the prevention group were only half as likely to have moderate to severe symptoms of depression as children in the control group (22% vs. 44%).

Significance

Depression - dubbed by Seligman as the "common cold" of mental illness - is the most frequently reported mental health problem among American school children. Once young people have had a depressive episode, they are much more likely to become depressed in the future. Arming children with anti-depressive thinking skills may short-circuit this cycle of depression and provide a cost-effective, longer-lasting, drug-free alternative to antidepressants.

Practical Application

These research findings led to the development of the Penn Resiliency Program, which was named after the University of Pennsylvania, where the original research was conducted. This innovative program has proven effective in reducing depressive symptoms among students of various ages and ethnicities. School systems in California, New Jersey, Texas, Minnesota, New York, and Illinois have adopted this program to prevent depression and improve classroom behavior among their students. Cities in China, Canada, and Australia are also trying out the program.

Cited Research

Jaycox, L. H., Reivich, K. J., Gillham, J. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1994). Prevention of depressive symptoms in school children. Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol. 32, pp. 801-816.

Gillham, J. E., Reivich, K. J., Jaycox, L. H., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). Prevention of depressive symptoms in school children: Two-year follow up. Psychological Science, Vol. 6, pp. 343-351.

Seligman, M. E. P., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., & Gillham, J. (1995). The optimistic child. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Seligman, M. E. P., Schulman, P., DuRubeis, R. J., & Hollen, S. D. (1999). The prevention of depression and anxiety. Prevention and Treatment, 2.


American Psychological Association, October 27, 2003