Helping Others May Help Teens Beat Depression

Want to help your teen avoid the powerful pull of adolescent depression? Start early by introducing him or her to the gift of giving.

 A new study says that teens who like to help others may be less likely to develop depression.

The study included 15- and 16-year-olds that were given three types of tasks: give money to others, keep the money for themselves or take financial risks with the hope of earning a reward.

The teens were checked for symptoms of depression at the start of the study and a year later.

To see if there was a possible link between pleasure, altruistic behavior and depression, researchers monitored activity levels in the area of the brain called the ventral striatum. This part of the brain controls feelings of pleasure linked to rewards. 

Previous studies have looked at ventral striatum activity and teen behavior associated with risk-taking. But this time, scientists wanted to see if doing for others offered it's own kind of unique reward.

What if the pleasure center was rewarded with simply helping others through difficult times? Could that kind of activity offer a somewhat equal sense of satisfaction? If so, it might save a lot of young lives and prevent serious injuries that can last a lifetime.

 "There's this trend where from childhood to adolescence, morbidity and mortality rates increase 200 to 300 percent, and it's almost entirely due to these preventable risk-taking behaviors," study author Eva Telzer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a university news release.

"Depressive symptoms also tend to increase during this time," she said.

The study showed that activity in the ventral striatum in response to different rewards predicted whether the subjects' depressive symptoms would worsen or lessen over time.

"If they show higher levels of reward activation in the ventral striatum in the context of the risk-taking task, they show increases in depressive symptoms over time," said Telzer.

"And if they show higher reward activation in the pro-social context, they show declines in depression." she said.

Today's society seems to run much faster and is more hectic than in previous generations. Families are spread out across the country and there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day to get everything done. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate what is important in the short time that we have here on earth and carve out a place for reaching out to those who may need an extra hand, a few dollars or a kind word during difficult times.

"This study suggests that if we can somehow redirect adolescents away from risk-taking or self-centered rewards and toward engaging in these more pro-social behaviors, then perhaps that can have a positive impact on their well-being over time," Telzer noted.

Teaching children how to volunteer when they are young and exposing them to other people's circumstances and beliefs may open a space in their hearts that could help them keep things in perspective by the time they are teens and young adults.

Sources: Rick Nauert PhD,

Robert Preidt,

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