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In search of bio-psycho-social markers for the recurrence of adolescent depression is a research project focusing on young people who have recovered from depression. We will examine whether experience of depression may result in biological and psycho-social changes that make the individual more at risk for developing future episodes of illness.

Half of depression cases emerge in youth. Adolescent depression is notoriously difficult to treat and highly recurrent. Once an individual has had one episode of illness, the chance of developing a second episode is 60%; after two and three episodes, the chances rise up to 70% and 90% respectively. We urgently need to develop more effective treatments on the early stage of illness, before it develops into a recurrent pattern. This project will therefore focus on young people who have recovered from depression. The key hypothesis is that the experience of depression may result in biological and psychosocial changes (‘scar effects’) that make the individual more at risk for developing future episodes of illness. This project will examine these features, focusing on three areas: 

i. Emotional processing – the way we attend to, interpret, and remember emotional information; 

ii. Reactivity to stress – both in terms of biological functions indicated by cortisol levels (the ‘stress hormone’), quality of sleep, and psychological strategies of emotional regulation; 

iii. Psychological scar effects – the way individuals cope with the sense of shame and stigma that are often associated with mental health difficulties. 

This project consists of three studies using both quantitative and qualitative methods with longitudinal follow-up assessments to examine short- and long-term outcomes. Qualitative interviews will help capturing the lived experience of adolescent depression and identify factors that are subjectively important. The ultimate goal is to inform the development of better treatment and preventative strategies that can transform the quality of life across the life span.

This work forms the basis for Niamh MacSweeney's PhD. Niamh is supervised by Dr Stella Chan (Clinical Psychology) and Dr Heather Whalley (Psychiatry) and is funded by Mental Health Research UK