2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Professor Lisa Miller and Students Help Prevent Depression in Pregnant Girls

With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education Lisa Miller and her associates have been working with girls at P.S. 911 in Manhattan, a school specifically designated for pregnant girls in 8th, 9th and 10th grades, who are on the pathway toward depression.; "The national rate of depression for pregnant girls is about 20 to 30 percent," Miller said.; "The rate for these girls before we came was 60 to 80 percent. Now 90 percent of the girls we did prevention with are not depressed."

The first group Miller and her associates worked with was a self-chosen group who felt they were experiencing struggling times due to their pregnancy. They participated in a 12-week after-school program of interpersonal psychotherapy which had been shown to help adolescents in general and pregnant adult women but had not been used with pregnant adolescents. "It was an ideal treatment for them because of the high amounts of stress they were experiencing," Miller said. "Many have been thrown out of their homes and terribly mistreated by their family and even their boyfriend, the baby's father."

She added, "They are depressed because they are discriminated against for being young and pregnant. They are really some of the most resilient, loving young women that I have ever met and they are treated terribly by society."

This year, after finding so many depressed girls in the school, they wanted to conduct a widespread intervention that would treat girls who were currently severely depressed and also protect and prevent depression in girls who were headed in that direction. After the intervention, comparisons were made showing that after the 12-week program, only 10 percent showed signs of depression. "That is a remarkably low number considering that previous research shows that pregnant adolescents normally show a 50 percent increase in the rate of depression from the second to the third trimester," Miller noted.

Once Miller and her associates began working with the girls, their reasons for becoming mothers was clear. "They were not going to be better off financially, they expected less emotional support and less popularity and community support. Yet they were committed to becoming mothers," Miller said. "It became clear their motivation was spiritual."

To show the girls support for their perspective, the psychologists helped them own up to and respect the role of motherhood as a social and spiritual journey.

The girls talk about their children giving them a higher purpose. "We do everything that we can to be right there with them and support them in that," Miller said.

In addition to testing the participants for depression at the end of the 12-week program, researchers tested all the girls in the group post partum and, according to Miller, the gains of treatment were maintained. "Depression in pregnancy is a predictor of post-partum depression. Girls did not show an increase in depression," she said. "Their sense of calling as mothers was something strong and enduring and translatable into practical improvements in their lives."

As a next step, Miller would like to be able work with the girls for 15 months to two years to see how they are doing and develop follow-up intervention that extends into early motherhood.

Arielle Shanok and Merav Gur, two TC doctoral students, who contributed to this program received NIMH research prizes. The young investigator awards (plus $1,800 stipend) were based upon exceptional presentations of their research findings at the NIMH conference, "Beyond the Clinical Walls," on improving access to treatment for high risk adolescents.

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