Acting fast against teenage depression

 

It’s crucial to tackle teenage problems early, before they become insurmountable, writes CHARLIE TAYLOR

MORE NEEDS to be done to identify and treat adolescents with depression, according to new research. The study, which was carried out by researchers at Cardiff University, shows that failure to intervene and provide support early on can have disastrous consequences.

It says that, left untreated, adolescent depression increases the risk of suicide, substance abuse and obesity; leads to serious social and educational problems; and can result in lifelong health difficulties.

The study’s findings have been welcomed by mental health experts in Ireland, who say it could have a big impact on how adolescent depression is treated here.

The research stresses that while effective treatments are available to young people, the lack of interventions and resources directed to tackling and preventing depression in many countries is a “serious concern”.

“Much more needs to be done to recognise and treat those with depression early and to develop innovative and cost-effective methods to improve access and deliver prevention programmes to a far wider group of adolescents particularly in non-specialist settings and in low-income and middle-income countries where the burden is greatest,” says Prof Anita Thapar from Cardiff University, lead author of the study.

It is estimated that in any given year, 4-5 per cent of adolescents have depression, with the condition twice as common in girls as it is in boys.

Most young people with depression are vulnerable to recurrent episodes, and two-thirds also have another psychiatric disorder or problems with school performance, behaviour and substance misuse.

The study highlights the success achieved in treating depression in young people using interpersonal or cognitive behavioural therapy, particularly in terms of mood regulation and problem solving. It also adds that prevention strategies targeted at high-risk individuals are more likely to prove successful than universal screening programmes.

Anthony Keane, a counsellor and teacher at Hartstown Community School in Clonsilla, Dublin 15, says the new research is timely and particularly relevant at a time when education cuts are having such an impact on schools.

He says that teachers and guidance counsellors are often among the first to spot mental health problems in adolescents but warns that reduced staffing levels mean that it is proving more difficult to be able to identify young people at risk and to provide support for them.

“Increasingly, guidance counsellors are being forced to return to their original subject areas because of cuts and so are no longer available to provide one-to-one counselling. This obviously has huge implications for adolescent mental health,” he says.

“The key thing is having personnel in the school who have some expertise and can make appropriate referrals. If the provision of guidance counsellors is going to be withdrawn then this is going to put a lot of pressure on outside services and young people are going to be falling through the gaps,” he adds.

One of those services available to young people is Reachout.com, a website that provides mental health information to help adolescents through tough times. Reachout’s chief executive, Elaine Geraghty, says the new research reinforces the need for early intervention for young people struggling with problems. However, she adds that adolescents are far more open about dealing with mental health issues than older people, and says that some juveniles’ experience of accessing help from traditional sources has proven less than satisfactory.

A study carried out by the website last year revealed that young people are more likely to seek help for mental health problems online than access traditional services. According to the study, just 35 per cent of survey respondents had turned to a health professional for help when experiencing emotional difficulties. Of those who had previously spoken to a professional, 41 per cent reported they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to do so again.

“What we take from the new research is that it highlights once again the importance of relationships and goes beyond just providing clinical evidence to highlighting the importance of improving mental health literacy generally,” she says.

While welcoming the new study, Dr Joseph Duffy, director of clinical support at Headstrong, an advocacy and support group for youth mental health, echoes Geraghty’s concerns about rushing to diagnose individuals. He says there is a need to address mental health issues in the broader sense rather than just focusing on depression.

“What’s important is trying to engage young people both in terms of trying to look after their own mental health but also to develop services that are accessible to them. Some of these may be informal services which don’t necessarily have a mental health focus, such as those promoting sport and so on,” he says. “I think what’s really required is for Government to consider supporting services that reach out to people in an innovative way and for services that are informed by young people, because they know themselves what they need.”