The rates of American teenagers diagnosed with depression have been on a continuous rise in recent years. According to Johns Hopkins University, the odds of teenagers becoming depressed grew by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014, making depression one of the most common illnesses teenagers experience.
In order to combat this, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore created the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP), which marries student curriculums with training for health and school-based professionals in order to deliver a core message to the public: depression is a treatable medical illness and people should feel empowered to seek help. ADAP has been around for 19 years, and so far has been taught to more than 80,000 high school students.
And it’s working: On Monday the university announced that students who experience ADAP are more likely to approach their teachers with concerns about themselves or others, and are more likely to receive treatment. This evaluative study was published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
Between 2012 and 2015, approximately 3,681 students aged 14 to 15 from 54 secondary schools in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oklahoma were randomly placed in ADAP, while 2,998 students were put on waitlist for ADAP (which served as the control condition). Students in ADAP learned a curriculum that teaches people how to recognize symptoms of depression and how it can be diagnosed and treated. It’s a three-hour program taught over two to three consecutive classes, with an aim to remove the stigma from depression and confer an understanding that suicide can be a detrimental consequence of the illness.
The researchers evaluated the ADAP students six weeks after the course and then again four months later, and found that while ADAP did not significantly affect stigma, students in ADAP had a significantly higher understanding of what depression is compared to the control group. Approximately 54 percent of ADAP students were considered “depression-literate” after four months, compared to the 36 percent of control students. They also found that 16 percent of ADAP students sought help for depression after completing the program, and out of these 44 percent ultimately received treatment for depression.
“We believe that early treatment and self-recognition of depression are essential for reducing suffering in young people, and our results validate the overall effectiveness of the program,” Dr. Karen Swartz, a Johns Hopkins University associate professor and founder of ADAP, said in a statement.
There are potential biases to these results. Of the ADAP students analyzed, 64 percent were girls, and 77 percent identified as white. A separate 2017 study from San Diego State University found that teenage girls are six times more likely to report symptoms of depression than boys. It’s unclear whether the gender difference is because girls are more likely to develop depression, or if they are more comfortable reporting it.
The Johns Hopkins researchers, who hope to bring ADAP to middle school students, believe that the earlier they can reach those at risk, the earlier they can intervene and help give them the help they need. Depression literacy, they believe, should be a normalized part of standardized health education curriculum — and when depression becomes normalized, the stigma can be eradicated.