Teaching young women how to face their fears is succeeding in reducing anxiety and depression among Sydney schoolgirls.
Macquarie University is tracking 2000 teenage girls for four years to identify which genetic, environmental and cognitive factors influence the development of anxiety and depression, and what works to prevent these conditions.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems for children and teenagers, affecting one in 10 girls.
Five-hundred students from Queenwood School for Girls are participating in the Emotional Health Project, which is in its second year. Acting principal Erica Thomas said schools have noticed anxiety becoming more prevalent among younger girls.
“We see anxiety before tests start to increase, anxious students ask an increasing number of questions and take days off school,” Ms Thomas said. “These symptoms are greater in younger students than students facing the HSC.”
She attributes this to the earlier onset of adolescence, the advent of technology such as social media and an increasingly complex world.
Participants in the university project attend an eight-week intervention program which teaches them strategies to cope with anxiety and depression, and the relationship between thoughts, emotions and actions. The girls are assessed once a year.
“We encourage girls not to focus on the negative, to think realistically and evaluate situations,” Professor Jennie Hudson, who is chief investigator on the project, said.
“Anxiety is a really normal emotion that everyone experiences. It’s how you respond to that.”
Mrs Thomas said the program was already paying off for Queenwood students.
“Those girls that had higher levels of anxiety and depression did show a significant reduction in symptoms after the program,” she said.
Mrs Thomas also said participating in the Macquarie study had helped “normalise” conversations about mental illness at Queenwood.
“One of the key things is it validates the fact they’ve got problems – they feel as though they’re being listened to,” she said.
Professor Hudson said parents should acknowledge their child’s anxiety rather than dismissing it, and encourage them to face their fears. “The more you practise what you’re fearful of, the easier it gets,” she said. “Overprotective parenting encourages avoidance.”