How to Deal with Teenage Depression: A New Study of Adolescent Depression and its Treatment

A new study reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found some interesting results of a study of teenage depression and its treatment.

This study of 439 teenage children with major depression, done at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas tested anti-depressant medication (fluoxetine or Prozac), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and a combination of both (COMB). They found that only 23% of the patients had their depression cured by 12 weeks of therapy. But 9 months of therapy was much more effective, with 60 percent going into remission.

The bad news though is that this means that almost half of the teenagers (40%) were still depressed after 9 months of therapy.

The good news is in terms of relapse. Of those who responded quickly to treatment, two-thirds retained the benefits of treatment over 9 months. The same was true of those who took longer to respond.

Which treatment was better? That is an interesting picture.

It depends at which time point you are looking at. At 12 weeks, the results for percentage fully remitted (cured) of depression were: combined drug and CBT therapy (37%), drug therapy only (23%), and CBT therapy only (16%). The combined therapy was significantly better than the other therapies. But note that overall, only 23% of the teenagers had recovered at 12 weeks, which means that 77% were still suffering!

But at nine months the outcomes look quite different. The combination therapy is still the best, but by less of a margin. The results for remission at at 9 months were: combination, 60%; drug, 55%; cognitive-behavioral therapy, 64%; and overall, 60%. By 24 weeks all the treatments were working well. But a full 40% of the teenagers were still depressed.

So the right answer to the question of which treatment works better is neither. Both drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy were equally effective, over the long term. But the combination of both was worked more quickly. As the researchers said, “choosing just one therapy might delay many teenagers’ recovery by 2 or 3 months.” As the saying goes, candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker, and we might conclude that drugs or CBT are dandy, but combined therapy is quicker.

So what does this mean to parents of depressed teenagers? Here are my takeaway messages:

  1. Don’t expect treatment for depression to work quickly. It may take more than 9 months of weekly treatment before your teenager responds to therapy. This means at least 40 sessions of therapy.
  2. Be patient, and set reasonable expectations for both yourself and for your child. Tell them that therapy will help, but it may take a while. Let support networks such as school counselors or trusted teachers know to be patient.
  3. Although medications and cognitive behavioral therapy were equally effective in the long run, the combination of both tended to work much more quickly. So if you can afford it, and have access to good practitioners who do cognitive behavioral therapy, use both.
  4. Be aware that in other studies, the relapse rate for medication treatment of depression was significantly higher than for cognitive behavioral therapy, once the medications are discontinued. So choosing medications only may increase the risk that your teenager will relapse into depression.
  5. Be aware that much teenage depression can be a reaction to social environments. This includes the family, the school, and peers. Be sure that your teen’s therapist is attuned to family, school, and peer issues. They should meet with the whole family at least several times.
  6. Take teenage depression seriously. It’s not just a phase. Teenage depression, when serious, can greatly increase the risk of suicide. All suspected depression should be evaluated by a professional and treated if present.

Copyright © 2009 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

SOURCE: Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, February 2009 . And December 2006 issue too .

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