Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO estimated that depression had the single greatest burden of disease of any ailment in the world. We have now seen a 300% increase in youth mental health problems (anxiety and depression) since Feb 2020. A major contributor to depression is the social stress that permeates adolescence. Public health experts have argued that the single most important investment is to prevent the first onset of depression, because depression is difficult to reverse once diagnosed. However, there are currently no effective interventions that can be given to entire populations of young people to prevent or slow the onset of stress-related depression or anxiety symptoms. Without immediate remedy, the suffering and loss of human capital caused by depression will continue unabated.
What’s standing in the way?
A major impediment to progress is the wrong societal view of stress. Adults feel compelled to help young people with stress by taking stressful demands “off the table.” And yet many of young people’s most potent stressors come from school, in particular math and science, and they need to work hard and persist in these courses. We can’t, and shouldn’t, tell young people to give up on anything that is hard for them. Indeed, the most common way to help people cope with stress is to use the language of self-care, e.g., taking a break, avoiding your anxiety, changing your goals. But this is often the opposite of what young learners need to be doing when they need to persist through the normal and inevitable negative feelings of confusion during challenging coursework.
Unfortunately, adults have not been given effective tools for resolving this dilemma. As a result, they feel caught between two extremes, neither of which is appealing. They can maintain high standards, but care less about how that makes young people feel, or they can lower their standards to reduce stress, but this takes young people off track for prosperous and fulfilling careers. Given this dilemma, the power and potential of adults to promote adolescent mental health is untapped, while leaving adults feeling increasingly burnt out and ineffectual.
We have developed a novel technique, called a synergistic mindsets intervention, that has yielded consistent evidence about how to prevent stress-related youth outcomes. Our approach counter-acts the societal narrative that stress is always bad and debilitating. Instead, we give young people a better mindset about stress, so they are inspired to embrace their challenges and harness their stress as a force for good.
- Transformed cardiovascular stress test responses by > .5 standard deviations (SD)
- Reduced 9th graders’ daily levels of cortisol by ~.2 SD and increased pass rates by 30%
- Reduced clinical anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic by ~.2SD
Pilot studies have uncovered a successful, scalable method for targeting students’ mindsets and helping them to cope with stress. The most important next step is to translate it into something that changes how adults talk to and support young people. Doing so will require us to solve major scientific puzzles about the subtleties of adults’ language.
- Scalable, natural-language-processing tools for changing how adults talk about stress.
- Demonstrated impact on mental health of adolescents and adults in large-scale RCTs.
- Shift in the societal narrative about stress by embedding our findings in media.
- Beliefs Count Twice: How to Harness the Human Stress Response to Promote Well-being: Talk at Behavior Change for Good [YouTube link]