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$1.725 million research grant to help depressed pre-teens in pioneering study at Georgetown, Pflugerville school districts

The treatment and prevention of pre-teen depression is the focus of a five-year, $1.725 million research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by two professors at The University of Texas at Austin College of Education.

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AUSTIN, Texas—The treatment and prevention of pre-teen depression is the focus of a five-year, $1.725 million research project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by two professors at The University of Texas at Austin College of Education.

Dr. Kevin Stark, a professor in the School Psychology program, and Dr. Laura Stapleton, an assistant professor in statistics from the Department of Educational Psychology, will be the faculty investigators for a project based at the Georgetown and Pflugerville school districts.

“It is the first and only study of this magnitude and kind nationwide,” Stark said. The 15-member team will be supervised by Dr. Janay Boswell Sander, project coordinator, and include graduate students from the college’s doctoral program in school psychology. They will evaluate the effectiveness of a coping skills training program aimed at treating and preventing depression among 9-to-13-year-old girls.

“This treatment program has been developed over the past 15 years and serves as the model for the treatment of depressed children throughout the United States and Europe,” Stark said.

The youngsters are taught a variety of coping skills captured within the ACTION acronym: “Always find something to do to feel better. Catch the positive. Think about it as a problem to be solved. Inspect the situation. Open yourself to the positive. And Never get stuck in the negative muck.”

“All children could benefit from learning these skills,” said Stark, explaining that the coping skills, which will be taught to depressed students, are the same ones that especially well adjusted children reported using to manage stress and emotions in Stark’s past research.

“At any time, 8 to 12 percent of adult women are experiencing depression that is severe enough to warrant professional intervention, and most of these women experienced their first episode of depression between 13 and 15 years of age,” said Stark.

“If depression is not successfully treated, it becomes a recurrent disorder across the life span,” he said. “We hope to intervene early so that the girls don’t have to suffer from depression throughout their lives.”

“The need is huge out there,” said Dr. Jim Gunn, Georgetown Independent School District (GISD) superintendent who has worked as an educator and administrator for the past 29 years. Georgetown has grown by 60 percent in the last decade, and expects its population to increase by another 50 percent in the next six years as it completes a transition from small town to booming suburb.

“Anything that we can do to help our students become healthy, both physically and mentally, we will do,” Gunn said. “If students are not functioning and not engaging their full potential in the school setting, then it means that we have to work all the harder to try and reach them.”

To address the mental health needs of students, Gunn and other Georgetown community and school district contributors created The Georgetown Project, a non-profit organization concentrating on the healthy development of children and families.

GISD has received more than $3 million in the past three years to confront mental health issues, including children with severe needs, as part of a Texas Safe Schools Healthy Student Grant.

“Researchers are learning that gender plays an important link to depression in young girls,” said Stark. “The multiple changes that occur in early adolescence also act as stressors, particularly since many girls who develop depressive disorders tend to use a ruminative, internally focused style of coping with stress, rather than an active coping style that enables them to obtain relief through distractions and active problem solving.”

The research project will involve three distinct study groups, including a coping skills training group, a coping skills training group for the girls and their parents and a minimal contact control group.

“We believe a unique part of the research project is that after the girls learn the coping skills, they continue to receive help in applying the skills to new stressors during the following five years as they progress through adolescence,” Stark said.

Stark received his doctor’s degree in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and has since published widely on childhood depression. He has been the director of the doctoral program in school psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin for nearly a decade, and also is a licensed psychologist.

Stapleton received her doctor’s degree in 2001 from the University of Maryland.

Photo by Marsha Miller

For further information contact: Dr. Kevin Stark, College of Education (512) 471-4407.