Adolescent depression: Can mindfulness prevent it?


Adolescents are of course not immune to feeling blue or even depressed. Researchers are betting on mindfulness as a means of prevention, especially at UCL, a pioneer of child mindfulness. Prof. Pierre Philippot, a researcher at the Psychological Sciences Research Institute, is one of them.

Many adults recall adolescence as the happiest time of their lives. Hindsight helps. They’ve forgotten that in addition to hormonal changes, adolescence is largely about searching for self-knowledge and facing the enormous pressures of studying and deciding what to do when they grow up. Teenagers also learn about drugs and risky behaviours. In short, they’re swept away by the current, and those who can’t swim can sink into darkness, doubt and depression.

At UCL, several researchers want to exploit a pathway that’s been reserved to adults: mindfulness. Prof. Pierre Philippot, of the Psychological Sciences Research Institute’s Experimental Psychopathology Laboratory, specialises in emotional regulation in depressive disorders. He and Dr Sandrine Deplus, with the support of the HuoShen Foundation, launched mindfulness workshops for adolescents at UCL. Their experience was the subject of two studies that demonstrated the benefits of the technique for controlling anxiety and depressive disorders.

Solitude soleil adolescence dépression


Do many youths experience the ‘blues’ or worse? ‘Available figures are based on actual consultations, but the young aren’t inclined to seek professional help’, thus the figures can be misleading, Prof. Philippot explains. ‘Nonetheless, there has been an increase in the prevalence of emotional disorders, including both anxiety and depression, among adolescents since the Second World War. Not only because of increased reporting as a result of their being ignored less frequently, but also because of the deterioration of close social ties. As the possibilities of individual freedom multiply, the pressure of dealing with them increases. On top of this, genetic predisposition can hinder emotional regulation.’

Prof. Philippot believes in the capacity of the young to examine themselves and their environment, listen to their bodies and tend to their needs. ‘Adolescence is a crucial time because it’s when the capacity to be self-aware and to self-reflect develops.’

Which is why mindfulness is a valuable tool for adolescents and could even take the place of antidepressants, whose use is not ideal at such a crucial time of brain development.

adolescente solitude réflexion

Two research areas

Adolescents immersed in immediacy (relationships, pleasures, sensations, events) have everything to gain from ‘settling down’ and taking stock of their emotions, according to two recent studies on the positive effects of mindfulness on adolescents.

‘In the first, our team conducted mindfulness trainings of adolescents to help them mobilise their ability to enter into a relationship with themselves, be attentive to the automatic processes that guide their thoughts, and rise above them in order to pay attention to something else: part of the body, say, or breathing. We saw that this technique diminished certain reactions to emotions that tend to increase anxiety and depression, both of which, as a result, also diminished. The study included youths who were in treatment at UCL and youths living in SRJ [Services résidentiels de la Jeunesse, a French-speaking Community residential service for troubled youth]. The former came from middle and upper class families, but the latter suffered from behavioural disorders associated with a cognitive deficit (low IQ, for example) and generally didn’t benefit from a favourable family environment, so they were impulsive and had very little emotional awareness.’

A guarantee of success in this type of study: voluntary participation in the mindfulness training programme. Initial results show a significant reduction in anxiety disorders in the first group and in the impulsiveness of the second. Started three years ago, the study is ongoing.

chaussures herbes jeune

Turn away from anxiety

The second study, conducted over the last year and a half, focuses on mental and cognitive processes. It aims to identify individuals who need to control their attentiveness. The goal is to inhibit irrelevant information, break free of it and thus improve working memory. ‘These processes are at play in anxiety that leads to brooding, and thus to depression’, Prof. Philippot explains. A third study that will soon take place will examine whether, by creating fun techniques to exercise this process in a positive way, youths will be able to use them to reduce brooding.

These encouraging approaches could help youths keep anxiety at bay and prevent depressive disorders. ‘Mindfulness isn’t a miracle cure. But if it helps, even in difficult environments such as the SRJ, it’s not unreasonable to think it could be useful to people in need. It could then be used elsewhere, if we have well-trained staff and adequate facilities. All while paying attention to the fact that some respond to a given treatment while others do not.’

He also cautions that cases of proven depression require more rigorous treatment, even if mindfulness appears to help depressed adults. ‘Mindfulness aims to reinforce our ability to implement emotional regulation systems to prevent our falling into dysthymia or depression. We must have sufficient resources to monitor this type of programme.’

Carine Maillard

Solitude nuit adolescent

A Glance at Pierre Philippot's bio

Pierre Philippot

1960: Born
1979: Secondary school degree, Collège Saint-Augustin (Gerpinnes)
1987: Master’s Degree in Science (Psychology), University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Licence in Psychology, UCL
1987: Assistant, UCL
1992: Doctorate in Psychology, UCL
1993: FNRS Research Associate
Since 1993: Professor of Clinical Psychology, UCL

Published on June 28, 2016