If 100 young people were in a room, 20 of them would be affected by depression. This rate continues to increase according to Cecile D. Ladouceur, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine, and of psychology, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pittsburgh.
But talking to a health care professional may not capture everyone experiencing mental health issues. Dr. Ladouceur wants to make the process of identifying mental health issues easier for providers.
While 20 percent of all youths are depressed, it does not look the same for each person. About a third experience mania symptoms that look like being impulsive and risky, and can increase the possibility of suicide. When young people have these mixed features, special treatment is needed but can often go undetected in the typical clinical process.
Researchers with the Mood and Brain Circuitry in Adolescent (MBA) study are recruiting children who are not currently on psychiatric medicine.
“The goal of the research project is to define the brain and behavioral aspects of adolescent depression and to examine how these are related to mood symptoms over two years,” says Dr. Ladouceur. “We are looking at how the brain reacts to happy and rewarding information, as well as how adolescents sleep and their symptoms change over time.”
Dr. Ladouceur hopes that findings from the study will help create new methods to identify which young people with depression might experience mania. Then the research team can provide strategies even before these symptoms emerge.
Two areas, in particular, are getting the attention of Dr. Ladouceur and others: Young people who identify as women and adolescents who are not white. Dr. Ladouceur is also interested in spaces where those two identities intersect.
“The rate of depression, particularly in adolescent girls, has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades,” says Dr. Ladouceur, adding, “Yet, we know very little about the cause of depression and which medications and psychological treatments are best suited for the specific type of mood symptoms.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that the number of all children age 6 through 17 who have ever been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression has increased from 5.4 percent in 2003 to 8 percent in 2007 to 8.4 percent in 2012.
The MBA study team says that many racial and ethnic groups have similar types of mental health issues as white people. However, the effects of mental health problems in former groups may last longer. The MBA team is intentionally recruiting youths of color at or above the percentage of those who live in the region.
As a clinical child psychologist, Dr. Ladouceur wants to do research so that young people have a better chance of avoiding long-term developmental effects. Currently, the team is educating local therapists about the different types of teen mood symptoms. They hope to enhance the tools therapists currently have that identify depression in teens.
“Advances in neuroscience research have shown that the brain systems involved in mood regulation undergo important maturational changes during adolescence through adulthood,” says Dr. Ladouceur. “This means that adolescence may be the ideal time to intervene in order to have longer-lasting effects on mental health.”