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Helping Depressed Teens: A School Peer Program That Works

How fellow students can reduce stigma, reach out and listen

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

During adolescence, shifting emotions and moods, such as feeling blue for a day or two. are neither unusual nor abnormal. But what is not normal is a major depressive episode: a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, together with problems with sleeping, eating, energy and concentration.

Across the United States, in a given year, more than 13% of adolescents aged 12–17 (which means over 3 million of them) experience such a depressive episode. And these depressions are often associated with poor academic performance, alcohol and drug use, suicide attempts and completed suicides.

Getting Help for Teens Isn’t Easy

Helping such young people seek out the professional assistance they need is often difficult. Many teens simply do not divulge feelings, fears and concerns to their parents or other adults.

Could Teen Schoolmates Help?

Teenagers identify with and listen closely to the opinions of their fellow teenagers. Unfortunately, because the teens worry about being stigmatized as mentally ill, they also hide their plight from their peers.

If other students could show them they understand what depression is and that it can be treated; if they could show they will accept rather than reject those who suffer from it, it would have a powerful impact. It could bolster a young depressed person's courage to accept that they have a mental illness. It would increase their confidence in confiding in their peers for support and for help in finding treatment.

But that seems easier said than done. Can high school students really take on such a role?

In a word: Yes. There is a program that helps fellow students do just that – and it works.

The Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Program

This program has been designed and implemented under the auspices of the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Depression Center, in partnership with public school systems.

It uses a "peer advocate" method to educate high school students about depression and teach them effective methods to convey this knowledge to peers in order to reduce stigma, raise awareness and encourage help-seeking.

How The Student Advocates are Selected and Educated

Student advocates are selected by teachers and counselors, and then work in teams.

The education sessions for them focus on:

  • Improving their knowledge about depressive illnesses
  • Understanding the interactions between mental health and substance abuse
  • Understanding the interaction between academic stress and mental health
  • Learning coping skills students can use to alleviate stress
  • Learning strategies to plan and execute an effective depression awareness campaign

How it works

The student advocates work in teams. They are encouraged to be creative in designing activities, and each team designs their own campaign, with ongoing help from school faculty.

Here are examples of what some teams have done:

  • Teaching a session at school assemblies
  • Making eye-catching posters about depression, which are placed in school hallways and bathrooms
  • Providing a confidential way for students to express a concern about a fellow student’s mood and behavior
  • Designing a drop-box so students who think they are depressed or anxious can communicate that to the school’s staff
  • Designing bracelets or buttons with slogans such as "I am aware of mental illness "or "You're worth it" and handing them out
  • Putting stress buster bags in every classroom which include items such as stress balls and pages to color
  • During finals and other stressful times, teaching and demonstrating coping and relaxation skills, such as having yoga sessions in the cafeteria

Is The Program Effective?

A questionnaire to examine this rigorously was developed at the University of Michigan. One hundred students not part of the P2P teams filled out a questionnaire both before and after the Depression Awareness campaign.

The results showed that after the campaign, students were more likely to say they:

  • Felt more confident identifying the signs of depression in themselves and others
  • Understood that depression runs in families and cannot be controlled through "willpower
  • Would ask for help if they had depression symptoms for more than two weeks
  • Were comfortable discussing mental health with other students at school.
  • Felt confident in their ability to help friends access mental health services

How to get a manual for schools wanting to set up a P2P program

The Program at the University of Michigan Depression Center, led by Stephanie Salazar MPH, has created a manual to assist schools that have an interest in developing similar programs to help students reach their peers effectively.

The manual can be accessed at the Depression Center website.

Stephanie Salazar is also making herself available to speak with interested school personnel as well. Her email:

And- there is something even newer on the horizon: the program is currently being piloted in several middle schools.

Another peer-to-peer program, for California schools

Another excellent Program with validated results is currently available only for schools in the greater San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles areas.

Here’s the link to contact this program.