Online interventions can ease teen depression

"Our SSIs aren't meant to replace other in-person counseling specific treatments," says Jessica Schleider. "They are more designed to be a safety net and an evidence-based support service for many teens who may otherwise have limited access to intervention or have not sought care." (Credit: Getty Images)

Just two online single-session interventions can help curb teen depression, a new study of more than 2,400 adolescents ages 13 to 16 shows.

The tool is very much needed given a rise in teen depression and loss of some in-person mental health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teenagers who experience depression symptoms often cannot access professional help. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated less than half of adolescents/teenagers with depression access help. One recent study suggested that childhood and adolescent anxiety and depression doubled during the first year of the pandemic.

For the study in Nature Human Behaviour, adolescents experiencing elevated depressive symptoms participated in one of two online single-session interventions (SSI), the first teaching “behavioral activation” (the idea that taking positive action can boost your mood), and the second teaching “growth mindset” (the idea that depression symptoms and personal traits are changeable). Researchers recruited participants, who came from all 50 US states, via social media (Instagram).

Pre-pandemic there was a need for more accessible avenues to treatment and mental health support for teens with mental health challenges, says lead author Jessica Schleider, assistant professor in the psychology department at Stony Brook University.

She and colleagues wanted to test whether single-session, online, and free-of-charge interventions could significantly reduce depression in teens who were struggling.

They created a control, “placebo” SSI, and two skills-based SSIs: the behavioral activation program, and the growth mindset program. She and colleagues tested three-month outcomes measuring depression, hopelessness, generalized anxiety, COVID-related trauma, and restrictive eating.

“We discovered that both of the SSIs significantly reduced teens’ depression symptoms and levels of hopelessness compared to the control group three months later,” says Schleider. “On average, the effects on depression were moderate, in some teens the SSIs helped reduce their symptoms a lot, for others only a small amount.

“But on a public health scale, since the programs are so easily accessible, and free, this type of intervention could help reduce the overall burden of depression in this vulnerable population of youth.”

Their overall results, the authors write, confirm the utility of free-of-charge, online SSIs for high symptom adolescents, even in the high-stress COVID-19 context.

Schleider says that there is no surefire cure for depression, and in-person therapy with trained professionals result in full symptom remission in around 50% of the time for adolescents/teenagers.

“Our SSIs aren’t meant to replace other in-person counseling specific treatments,” Schleider emphasizes. “They are more designed to be a safety net and an evidence-based support service for many teens who may otherwise have limited access to intervention or have not sought care.”

The National Institutes of Health Office of the Director sponsored the study, a clinical trial. Schleider and colleagues will continue to assess the effectiveness of SSIs for mental health intervention in teens. To learn more about this approach, and to access the free interventions tested in this study, see this link to the Lab for Scalable Mental Health.

Source: Stony Brook University