Prof. Margaret Lumley
Prof. Margaret Lumley

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder. That adds up to 3.2 million teens dealing with this condition. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in Canadians ages 15 to 24.

But perhaps the saddest statistic is this one: only one out of five youth who need mental health services will receive them.

Although a strong believer in psychotherapy to treat depression in youth, psychology professor Margaret Lumley acknowledges: “There is a huge gap between the number of youth who could benefit from mental health services for depression and those who access such services.” Her current research, funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is aimed at finding new ways to address some of the underlying causes and using technology to reach young people who may not be getting traditional services.

“One really important thing that we found in one of our previous studies is that during the transition to adolescence – ages nine to 13 – it is actually a lack of positive self-concept that strongly predicts depression,” she adds. “We tend to think of depression as related to negative self-concept, but it was the lack of positive views of oneself that were a stronger predictor in this age group.” She goes on to say that positive self-views are also strongly predictive of a youth’s ability to bounce back after experiencing stressors.

Positive views are not just the opposite of negative ones, she explains. “Just like you can have mixed emotions about something – being happy and worried at the same time – you can have both negative and positive views of yourself. But when children believe ‘I am a good friend, I am loveable, I am smart, I am kind to others,’ even if they also have some negative ideas about themselves, such as ‘I will never be good at school,’ then they have some protection against depression.” This study, done with PhD student Lindsey Keyfitz and colleagues Prof. Karl Hennig (Guelph) and Prof. David Dozois (Western University) was published in January.

Knowing how important self-views may be in preventing depression, Lumley wants to explore ways to better identify and build positive self-views in children and adolescents, including those who may be having significant mental health difficulties. One aspect of this project involves the use of online infrastructure and mobile technology – netbooks, tablets and iPods – to deliver interventions to youth and track the results.

For example, in related research conducted with Keyfitz, students in Guelph schools were asked to complete a diary about the best thing that happened to them that day and to do this each day for five days. “We want to look at how this influences how they feel over the week,” says Lumley. “We hope that getting youth to think about the positive things that are happening to them will improve their well-being.”

Lumley plans to further develop similar methods with this new grant. Making these kinds of tools available online so that youth can access them from their devices on an as-needed basis or in school as a part of classroom programming will broaden exposure. These strategies are important for youth who are vulnerable to depression but she believes they will also be beneficial to other teens and pre-teens. Lumley says she feels privileged to work with what she describes as “strengths-based leadership” in the Wellington Catholic District School Board.

Building on children’s strengths isn’t simply a matter of telling them they are smart or strong or taking a sugar-coated approach to difficulties; it’s about having different kinds of conversations with them, says Lumley. “If the child is feeling lonely and sad, but you know the child is good at art, perhaps you can encourage this child and some others to work on a mural. This uses the child’s strength and builds positive connections with peers. You are not dismissing their challenges, but saying, ‘this is going well. How can we build on that or get more of what is working?’”

The technology will also enable Lumley to collect information about the students’ relationships, their beliefs about themselves, their emotions, mental health and how they are doing on a daily basis. By following the pre-teens in her study through their adolescent years, Lumley hopes to better identify factors connected to later development of depression and also highlight factors that promote well-being.

Depression in pre-teens and teens is sometimes challenging to recognize, she adds. “Depression isn’t just sadness. It is a complex set of symptoms that may look different from one youth to another. Also, because many of the symptoms are internal they can be hard to notice in our busy world. The child who is irritable, who seems to have lost interest in things he used to care about, and who is having trouble with sleep and appetite may be experiencing depression.” She adds that chronic depression is a problem for many adults, but treating depression in its early stages can improve life satisfaction and reduce its severity later in life.

If concerned about a young person’s mood, families should check with their physician or mental health provider. Fact sheets on mental health issues are available on the Canadian Psychological Association’s website.