We're learning more about depression and its impact on our daily lives, but there's still a long way to go when it comes to understanding how it affects teenagers, specifically.
Dr. Madhukar Trivedi with UT Southwestern Medical Center is leading a program in North Texas schools as part of long-term research to identify, study and treat teenagers with or at risk for depression.
For the 10-year study, researchers are recruiting and following 1,500 teens and young adults (ages 10-24). The participants will regroup every four to six months and do a series of tests, including brain imaging, behavioral tests and tasks to assess emotion processing, Trivedi says.
The goal is to understand differents levels of depression among teenagers, so doctors can intervene earlier, he says. Right now, 20 schools in North Texas are participating in the program and the research team hopes to expand it reach, Trivedi says.
Trivedi is a founding director of UT Southwestern’s Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care. He talked with me about the research.
Why researchers are going into the classroom
There are two things. One is I think that we have to start early. We wait all too often too late. It is generally 10 to 12 years between the first onset of symptoms and the first time somebody gets diagnosed — that's too late. And the second part is the majority of advances in medicine have come from prevention and early detection. And so we want to go in very early, find out if there are any signs and symptoms [of depression] and then approach the teens and take them to the right place for care.
What they'll be doing in the classroom
We are in the classrooms doing two things. One is identifying those who really need care immediately, so we can connect them with care. And then those who are at risk, we are actually bringing them to the medical center and we are developing signatures of their biology, their brain function, etc., to then begin to develop predictive models of who is going to develop the illness, and what are the kinds of things we should do to prevent it.
On the signs and symptoms of depression among teens
First and foremost, you’ll see their participation in school and social activities go down. They’re more isolated and stay in their rooms more often. They’re more irritable and anxious. They have changes in sleep and appetite. Their sleep cycle is already affected, but this gets worse. Then, they have senses of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness and suicidal ideation.
"Let teens be teens" is not the solution — you have to be engaged. Asking teens and young adults whether they are depressed or not, or whether they are experiencing these symptoms, will not initiate symptoms in them — so it should be asked. Secondly, I think that when you see that they're not agreeing to do things or they are changing their behavior, or their school performance suddenly goes down, you should be very worried.
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.