Preventing Depression

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In my June 11 article, I talked about alternatives to anti-depressants. Here I will turn to what I believe is the bigger question: how can we prevent depression in the first place? In other words, how do we help healthy kids to enhance their well-being and flourish in life?

Optimism and Engagement are two ways individuals can buffer themselves against depression. But to have the greatest impact, we need system-level change so that teens develop in an environment that prevents depression-- and this means changing our approach to education.

One of the best things we can do for our children is to teach them the thinking skills that build optimism and hope. The way we explain life events to ourselves falls into two styles: pessimistic and optimistic, according to Martin Seligman, in his book, “Learned Optimism.” The pessimistic style is associated with depression and the optimistic style prevents depression.

When a bad event happens, the key question is how I explain it to myself. Do I say, “It’s my fault; there’s something wrong with me; I failed?” Or, do I name multiple factors, beyond me, that contributed to the event? The first set of answers reflects a pessimistic style and the second answer reflects an optimistic style. When good events happen, I want to do just the opposite: focus on things I did to make the events happen.

Engagement is the experience of being so absorbed in an activity that you lose your sense of self—and your sense of time. For example, playing tennis, planting a garden for your community center, meditating, and using your top strengths in new ways are all engaging activities. Each of these requires focus beyond the self – which is crucial to preventing depression, according to Seligman, in his latest book, “Authentic Happiness.”

Sadly, researcher Mike Csikszentmihalyi found that most teens are not engaged during much of the school day. Further, the two areas where teens are most engaged at school are the same areas where opportunities become more limited as kids get older: Sports and Arts. Increasing the amount of time spent in engaging activities, through participation in sports, arts, using one’s character strengths, meaningful service to others, and meditation are all ways to enhance well-being and buffer against depression.

Changing Our Approach to Education
In addition to individual skills, we also need to consider the system in which teens operate daily-- to be sure it enhances well-being. In a study last year, I found that our current system reinforces factors that cause depression (lack of control, defeat and pessimism, as well as focus on rank and status). For more detail, please see my study at If we want to systematically prevent depression in teens, we—parents, voters, and educators-- need to change our approach to education.

To begin with, three false myths affect the way we view and talk about education: (1) Not being a top student means you are not hardworking, motivated, or intelligent; (2) Being a top student leads to a great life; and (3) Our approach to education is best for our teens.

Students in the bottom of their classes have strengths and gifts that are well-suited to successful lives, but often these abilities are not amplified and enhanced in school. Nor are some strengths of the best students. While top students can thrive in school, they are also encouraged to focus on factors that correlate with anxiety and depression: rank, teacher opinion, being the best, or looking smart.*

World, corporate, and scientific leadership – as well as the future economy — depend on a far broader set of abilities than those we currently emphasize in school. Changing our approach, and actively engaging diverse gifts and strengths, not only leads to teen well-being, it also prepares the next generation for the world they will run.

* Jennifer Crocker at University of Michigan, Janice Templeton, at Fort Lewis College, and Barry Schwartz , author of “The Paradox of Choice,” have written about these factors.

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© Christine Duvivier 2007, 2008 All Rights Reserved

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