App May Help Parents to Curb Climbing Teen Depression Rates

According to recent studies, the rates of teen depression continue to climb — especially among white teenaged girls. Researchers have found that nearly one in every 11 adolescents and young adults have a major depressive episode each year. What’s more, the prevalence of these episodes in adolescents increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014. But while it’s clear that more and more teens are battling depression, the reasons aren’t quite as apparent.

Some researchers chalk it up to greater exposure to risk factors like cyberbullying. This may explain why teen girls are more vulnerable, since rates of cyberbullying have also increased more dramatically for teenaged girls than for boys. Female adolescents also use mobile texting applications more frequently; since problematic phone use has been linked to depressive moods, this may also play a part.

But what’s even scarier than the increasing rate of depression is that this correlation has not been found in medical treatment reports. In other words, doctors aren’t reporting an increase in depression treatment.

One reason for this may be that antidepressant drugs pose a higher risk for suicide in teens, which may cause doctors to avoid prescribing them. But another reason might be that teenagers who are suffering with depression simply aren’t telling anyone about it.

While up to 67% of American teens say they actually want to spend more time with their parents, it seems as if those teenagers who are suffering from depression aren’t confiding in adults they trust. Suicide continues to be the third leading cause of death for the 10 to 14 age group; it’s the second leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 34. When teens aren’t being forthcoming about their emotional troubles, it’s up to parents and doctors to ask the right questions and listen for cues that they might otherwise miss.

John Pestian and his research team have devoted the last decade to recognizing and documenting these cues. They’ve found that there are countless verbal and non-verbal clues that can help parents, school counselors, and doctors identify when someone is suffering from a mental illness or might be at risk for suicide. Even something like a pause or a change in pitch can be important to note.

To help adults read between the lines, Pestian worked with tech gurus to build algorithms. These algorithms were then turned into an app called SAM, which is being studied throughout eight schools this year in the Cincinnati area. SAM, which stands for Spreading Activation Mobile, records conversations during teen counseling sessions. It then analyzes the speech using Pestian’s technology to measure sounds and words. Astoundingly, the app can tell the difference between regular, angsty teen speech and speech that indicates a risk for suicide.

However, Pestian himself is quick to say that, while these technological advancements are astounding, there’s no replacement for therapists and parental involvement. As he says, “technology is not going to stop the suicide, the technology can only say: ‘We have an issue over here.’ Then we have to intervene and get a path to get care.”

SAM makes it easier for parents and medical professionals to identify those teens who need help, but it’s important for these adults to be aware of the risk for suicide in the first place. Facilitating conversations in conjunction with these technological advancements, eliminating the stigma of mental illness, and encouraging kids to open up about the problems they’re facing are all a part of the puzzle. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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