On Nov. 22, Jessica Schleider, a researcher at Stony Brook University (SBU), received the President’s New Researcher Award by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, based on the promise of developing theoretical or practical applications that represent advances to the field.
The award follows a $2 million grant Schleider and her team received in early October, called the National Institutes of Health Early Independence Award. The award was created to support scientists with the “the intellect, scientific creativity, drive, and maturity bypass the traditional postdoctoral training period to launch independent research careers,” according to the website.
Over the next couple of years, the grant will be used to learn more about better treatment for pre-adolescents to late-adolescents with depression by using either a computer or smartphone for therapy.
The total number of teenagers who have recently experienced depression increased by 59% between 2007 and 2017, according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center. According to Schleider, although efforts to reduce depression in youth have advanced greatly, 30-65% of youth who receive treatment don’t respond to it.
She explained that the problem lies in the need for treatment to be matched to personal clinical needs, as depression diagnoses could encompass more than 1,400 combinations of symptoms.
Jenna Sung, a first-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Stony Brook who works in Schleider’s lab, said that depression does not look the same for everyone. Individuals with varying symptoms may respond better to different kinds of treatments.
“Schleider’s research is an incredibly important study that hopes to provide individualized, symptom-tailored treatment to youth struggling with depression,” Sung said.
Schleider said this study could also be a way to match teens to quick, but powerful treatments for depression. She and her team will work with about 300 teenagers from Long Island that are experiencing depression over the span of five years and create a single automated therapy session.
“We are using a new method of the single session approach to match people to treatments that fit their needs as well as we possibly can,” Schleider said.
As teenagers come into the lab, they will be matched to a specific online module though a smartphone app for three weeks and will be asked multiple times in a day how they are feeling. At that point, Schleider and her team will be able to develop a profile of the patient to find out what symptoms matters most to them and what is driving their distress.
In addition to potency, Schleider explained that existing treatments are not uniformly accessible to everyone. Up to 70% of youth with depression do not access services.
“The main mission is to design and test both brief and more accessible ways to prevent depression,” Schleider said, adding that she is trying to help broaden and extend the current ecosystem of mental health care options for teenagers. “A majority of teenagers who have depression aren’t able to access treatments because either waitlists are too long, therapy is expensive or they have travel problems.”
There are already more than 10,000 mental health apps available, according to NBC News. According to Schleider, digital applications geared to treat mental health may fill a critical gap in obtaining mental health care, as they can make treatment for patients more accessible.
“We don’t market this as anything that will replace therapy. It’s supposed to fill gaps that need to be filled,” Schleider said. “It’s a different feel than traditional treatment because teens can choose when and where to use the treatment.”
Schleider’s study also delves into psychopathology, which views psychiatric disorders as causal interactions between symptoms.
Schleider said that youth with a stronger focus on a behavioral symptom — behavior pertaining to reactions made in response to social stimuli — may respond more favorably to a single session intervention focused on a customizable and personal behavioral activation treatment. On the other hand, youth with a stronger focus on a cognitive symptom — behavior involving conscious intellectual activity — may respond more favorably to the mindset single-session intervention.
Despite numerous articles that claim computers and smartphones lead to depression, Schleider claims that literature is flawed.
“Technology and social media are really not causing depression,” she said. “When radio and television first came out, society was in an uproar because it’s just a reaction for when technology is brought into the public.”
According to a longitudinal study done by researchers in Canada of 600 adolescents for two years and more than 1,000 young adults for six years, no correlation was found between social media use and depressive symptoms.
Others also believe that the devices that are creating new forms of addiction and stress can instead deliver therapy or provide support for treatment.
“[Schleider] is not proposing in any way that online modules will replace in-person therapy,” Julian Pessier, Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Stony Brook, said. “She is suggesting that there are many people suffering who do not have access to adequate care, and if her modules can be demonstrated as effective, that there is potential to help people who are in pain.”
Too much screen time has also been associated with depression — specifically the total amount of time spent on social media and the frequency. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry suggests that teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to develop mental health problems, including depression.
If Schleider’s modules prove effective, Pessier said he would be “very open” to utilizing the treatments as part of a range of interventions that he offers to patients at CAPS. His goal is to find each individual the tools that best meet their unique needs to reduce mental distress.
“The growing interest in accessible options to disseminating interventions to youth and their families is very important and exciting from the perspective of a student entering into treatment research,” Emma Mumper, a psychology doctoral student at Stony Brook who works in Schleider’s lab, said.
Schleider said that the $2 million grant will allow her to grow her research team, and cover the next two years of research.
“This is the first grant I received that will have a two year follow up for an intervention trial and it’s a huge boost overall to what we’re going to be able to do,” she said.