Stanford Study: Help for Teens With Depression and Anxiety During Covid

A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging “suggests that executive functioning in our brain plays a key role in protecting us against risk factors that worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety during stressful, uncertain times…” 

These results are relevant for all of us but are particularly interesting for our teens especially in this Covid era, says Rajpreet Chahal, a postdoctoral fellow in the Stanford Department of Psychology and lead author of the study.

Because of the pandemic, many teens have been cut off from their customary social support systems. That makes them particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression. How can we try to alleviate some of that suffering?

The pandemic has cut off typical emotional support for some teens. (Twenty20 @christinacorso)

Findings of a Stanford study

Psychologists at Stanford University have been tracking the mental well-being and development of 200 teens for five years before and after the current crisis ground life to a halt. The pandemic presented researchers with the opportunity to learn about the ways teens might avoid experiencing emotional challenges like depression and anxiety during a period of high stress. 

The study found that

Adolescents whose brain scans showed lower connectivity in a set of the region of the brain called the executive control network (ECN) reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression during the pandemic than did those teens whose ECNs had been shown to activate more coherently.

Stanford study on mental health of teens during covid-19

The ECN are a series of cognitive processes that monitor what is going on around us, manage our attention and help us make decisions and choices.

How to help anxious or depressed teens during Covid

How can we help teens lessen the harmful emotional effects of this pandemic? The Stanford study offers some suggestions:

First, teens at high risk for depression and anxiety can be identified early through brain imaging. They can then be treated appropriately with therapy or medication. 

Second, teens might benefit from executive function training as a way to ward off the depression and anxiety that can accompany everyday stressors or even monumental disruptions like a pandemic?

Ian Gotlib, a senior author of the study explained this important takeaway like this,

…we can start to look at predictors of mental health during COVID in susceptible, vulnerable children and adolescents. We’re just starting to get a sense of the factors that increase not only risk but also resilience, to the effects of the pandemic.

Dr. Ian gotlib

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About Melissa Milsten

Melissa Milsten lives in Westchester, New York with her husband, their four teenagers and Ruby the dog (who is sometimes the best behaved member of the family). Her background is in publishing and marketing. When she isn’t working or parenting, you might spot her on a yoga mat or lacing up a pair of sneakers. You can read more about her here

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