A team at the University of Illinois Medical Center hopes so, and has spent more than a decade developing and testing the best way to teach coping strategies to at-risk youth.
Benjamin Van Voorhees, M.D., the hospital’s chief of general pediatrics, heads the project, which is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Van Voorhees is teaching children coping skills through a combination of online learning and traditional counseling. He hopes a technology-based “behavioral vaccine” can reduce the risk of mental illness for a diverse group of young people, from teens struggling with issues of sexuality to those living in neighborhoods mired in violence.
“Just as a vaccine works in fighting infections, this approach may stop a major depressive disorder before it starts,” he says. “We want to convey to primary care practitioners that these individuals are coming through your office every day, and we are not doing enough for them, and in some ways we are ignoring the enormous future potential adverse trajectory toward mental disorder.”
Van Voorhees developed an online, self-guided depression prevention program called Competent Adulthood Transition with Cognitive Behavioral Humanistic and Interpersonal Training or CATCH-IT. It is aimed at teens showing early signs of depression or pre-depressive symptoms as determined through screenings during well checks or other medical visits.
The program includes a self-contained learning component on the Internet that focuses on changing behavior and improving cognitive thinking and social skills. The website, which has evolved over time, teaches resiliency skills in part by allowing parents to read stories about other teens to learn how they overcame adversity and became more successful in school, their relationships or on the job.