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How a mindfulness app may help teens struggling with depression

More teens have been diagnosed with depression in the last 10 years, experts say
More teens have been diagnosed with depression in the last 10 years, experts say 02:14

BOSTON - Teenagers are experiencing higher rates of depression than ever before, but a simple smartphone app could help treat a common symptom. 

More teens experiencing depression in the last 10 years

2020 was an especially tough year for 16-year-old Avary Whitehead. With pandemic stress plus his parents separating, he was losing interest in activities he used to love, including sports.

"I just kind of wanted to, like, just sit and do nothing," recalls Avary.

20 percent of teens have experienced clinical depression in the past year. Twice as many girls than boys. And the problem has only gotten worse in the past 10 years. 

Christian Webb, a researcher at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studies teen depression, says a common symptom is rumination, having repetitive negative thoughts that focus on the past. 

Avary tends to ruminate. "I always look back and think negatively about myself or about the actions or decisions I made," he said.

Mindfulness app helping stop rumination

Finding a child therapist is near impossible for many parents, so Webb and his team have partnered with Headspace to see if the mindfulness app can help teens with rumination. In an NIH-funded trial, volunteers, including Avary, perform mindfulness exercises daily for a month, including breathing exercises.

"The reason to focus on your breathing is that the breath is in the present moment," explains Webb. "It's in the here and now it's not tomorrow. It's not yesterday, and so it's a useful anchor.

While the study is ongoing, Webb says there have been some initial findings.

"Girls and older adolescents are more likely to benefit in the short-term from using these apps," says Webb.  "And in the longer term, teens that are struggling with rumination that is repetitive negative thoughts about the past are more likely to benefit from the app."

Avary says he's back to himself and back to playing sports and still uses some of the skills he learned from the study.

"If I would start to ruminate, I'd be able to stop myself and then just have a better day overall," he says.

And then a better outlook on life.

Study still looking for volunteers

The study is still recruiting teenage volunteers between the ages of 13 and 19.  If you're interested in finding out more you can go to their website.

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