Knowing Personalities Change May Help Deter Teen Depression


The switch from junior high to high school is difficult for many individuals, evidenced by an increase in depressive symptoms during this time of transition.

Yet, something as simple as educating transitioning students about the changeable nature of human personality may be all that is needed to deter depression. This is what researchers at the University of Texas discovered.

Although the Texas research is not definitive, its amazing results point to a possible one-time, inexpensive intervention that may help curb rising depression rates in mid-adolescence.

Addressing the Problem

Transitioning to high school involves friendship and hierarchy status changes. Some students find themselves being bullied, ostracized, or just feel lost. Students who absorb the message that they are “unlikeable” or “losers” become vulnerable to symptoms of depression.

The Texas investigators wondered if teaching teens about the changeability of human thought might prevent them from adopting negative self-beliefs. They set up an experiment with 600 ninth graders in three high schools. Students were randomly assigned to a control group activity or to the study’s active treatment intervention.

A Simple Experiment

Students receiving the treatment intervention read a passage that discussed how human personalities are subject to change. The article indicated that people are not bullied because they have permanent, personal defects, and that bullies are not naturally “bad” individuals.

The students learned about the brain’s plasticity, and they read related passages written by older students who reinforced the study's message. Finally, the treatment group participants were asked to write about personality flexibility in their own words, to be read by future transitioning students.

Students in the control groups did a similar exercise concerning the changeability of traits other than personality—traits such as athleticism.

The Power of What We Believe

The following May, nine months after the experiment, depressive symptoms increased by about 39 percent in the control activity students—a typical statistic for this age group. However, the students who learned about personal malleability did not have an increase of depressive symptoms, even if they had been harassed.

“We were amazed that a brief exposure to the message that people can change during a key transition - the first few weeks of high school - could prevent increases in symptoms of depression,” said researcher David Scott Yeager. “It doesn’t come close to solving the whole problem. Yet finding anything promising has the potential to be important because prevention is far better than treatment—not only for financial reasons but also because it avoids human suffering.”

Source: Psychological Science
Photo credit: U.S. Army RDECOM / flickr


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