Student Well-Being

Teaching Teenagers That People Change May Help Prevent Depression

By Evie Blad — September 22, 2014 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Have you seen those “It Gets Better” videos? They seek to encourage LGBT teens through personal testimonies of famous people who dealt with bullying or feelings of isolation in their youth, only to find that life changed, the people around them changed, too, and things got better. Here’s one from President Obama.

Many a nurturing parent has used a similar approach with bullied children, reminding them that social awkwardness will change, that some peers who bully them will one day regret it, and that people slide up and down the social totem pole throughout their lifetimes.

It turns out there might be a scientific case for using that approach to combat adolescent depression, and it relies on the same core idea as research on the “growth mindset.”

As Education Week readers probably already know, growth mindset researchers have found that children’s academic achievement improves when they understand that their mind is capable of change, and that they aren’t born with fixed skill sets they can’t outgrow. New research, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, seeks to apply the same idea to social and emotional issues, teaching teenagers that personality traits are changeable in an effort to counteract the increased risk of depression during adolescence.

Lead researcher David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin (who has also completed growth mindset research) and his graduate student co-author, Adriana Sum Miu of Emory University, tested an intervention with 600 freshmen in three high schools. Students randomly assigned to the intervention group in September read a passage about how “being bullied is not the result of a fixed, personal deficiency, nor are bullies essentially ‘bad’ people” and an “article about brain plasticity.” The students then wrote a narrative that could be shared with future freshmen about how personalities can change.

“Students in the control group read a passage that focused on the malleability of a trait not related to personality: athletic ability,” a news release about the study said.

Researchers had success with the intervention.

“A follow-up nine months later, in May, showed that rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms rose by roughly 39 percent among students in the control group, in line with previous research on depression in adolescence,” the release said. “Students who learned about the malleability of personality, on the other hand, showed no such increase in depressive symptoms, even if they were bullied. The data revealed that the intervention specifically affected depressive symptoms of negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem.”

Yeager warns that the approach is not a silver bullet for teen mental health. He’s made similar warnings about the growth mindset and achievement. (Yeager is actually the co-author of a paper called “Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic,” which he refers to simply as “the magic paper.”) Yeager urges that more testing will need to be done to further firm up the reliability of the results, but the findings are interesting, nonetheless.

What are some other malleable traits? And how could helping children and youth understand the possibility of change help them as they grow, develop, and endure difficult times?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.