Depression Lowers When Teens Learn They Can Change, Study Shows

A low-cost, one-time intervention that educates teens about the changeable nature of personality traits may prevent depressive symptoms often seen during the transition to high school, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, published online this month in Clinical Psychological Science, show that exposure to a brief message that people can change could reduce depression symptoms among teenagers during the first few weeks of high school.

Adolescence is a challenging transitional period marked by puberty and also changes in friendship networks and the status hierarchy, says David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. Research suggests that many lifelong cases of major depression emerge during this developmental period.

"When teens are excluded or bullied, it can be reasonable to wonder if they are 'losers' or 'not likable,' " says Yeager. "We asked: Could teaching teens that people can change reduce those thoughts? And if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?"

To find out, Yeager and his graduate student co-author Adriana Sum Miu of Emory University conducted a longitudinal intervention study with about 600 ninth-graders across three high schools. At the beginning of the school year, students were randomly assigned to participate in the treatment intervention or a similar control activity, though they were not aware of the group assignment. Both activities took place during a normal class period and required only paper or a computer. No one at the school knew the messages or reinforced them.

Students assigned to the treatment intervention read a passage describing how individuals' personalities are subject to change. The passage emphasized that being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially "bad" people. An article about brain plasticity and endorsements from older students accompanied the passage. After reading the materials, the students were asked to write their own narrative about how personalities can change, to be shared with future ninth-graders.

Students in the control group read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability.

A follow-up nine months later showed that rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group, in line with previous research on depression in adolescence.

Students who learned about the malleability of personality, on the other hand, showed no such increase in depressive symptoms, even if they were bullied. The data revealed that the intervention specifically affected depressive symptoms of negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness and low self-esteem.

These findings are especially promising given the relatively small investment of time and effort required to carry out the intervention, Yeager says. Yet he notes that further research is needed to answer a number of questions about the long- and short-term results, such as potential negative side effects, how and where the messages should be administered, and which symptoms are most and least affected.