Scientists create tool to identify young people at risk of depression

Scientists create tool to identify young people at risk of depression


Scientists create a tool which uses factors including sex and skin colour to identify young people at risk of suffering from depression

  • Researchers used data from 2,192 Brazilian 15-year-olds to develop the tool
  • It was based on 11 factors which came together to produce composite score 
  • Factors also included relationship with parents, drug use and failure at school 

Scientists have created a tool which they claim can identify children who are at high risk of suffering from depression.  

Researchers used data from 2,192 Brazilian 15-year-olds to develop the the tool, which took into account factors including how well they do at school, their drug use and whether they have run away from home.

From the data, they say they were able to work out which young people would go on to suffer from serious depression when they turned 18.

The scientists used existing research to identify 11 factors which could be combined into a single score to recognise those at risk.

The factors also included young people’s sex, their skin colour and their relationships with their parents. 

Scientists said they could work out whether a child was likely to develop depression by assessing how well they did at school, their relationships with their parents and their drug use, for example (stock image)

Other ways of working out depression risk are based on family history and symptoms which may not be serious enough to indicate depression, the researchers said.

Dr Valeria Mondelli, of King’s College London, who co-authored the study, said the research marked ‘an important first step’ in screening young people and improving mental health. 

Around one in six adults (17 per cent) in England experience mental health problems like anxiety or depression.

In the US, nearly one in five (60million) are said to suffer, National Institute of Mental Health statistics show.

Numerous factors are thought to influence it, including someone’s family history, suffering from illness, using alcohol and drugs and going through traumatic events.   

Dr Mondelli and her colleagues said they used their chosen 11 factors because they were either easy to collect or they had a strong association with depression.


Researchers from King’s College London used 11 factors to calculate an overall score which they used to predict someone’s likelihood of developing depression. 

These factors were:

  • Biological sex 
  • Skin colour
  • Drug use
  • School failure
  • Social isolation 
  • Involvement in fights
  • Poor relationship with mother
  • Poor relationship with father
  • Poor relationship between parents
  • Childhood mistreatment
  • History of running away from home 

She said they tried to ‘go beyond’ traditional ways of identifying young people who might be at risk.

The researchers added that they tried to learn from risk scores used to predict other health problems. 

These include the Framingham cardiovascular risk score, which attempts to predict the risk of someone suffering a heart attack over the course of 10 years. 

Dr Mondelli and her colleagues assessed the Brazilian students at both 15 years of age and 18 years. 

They then developed the tool to predict their risk of suffering from depression.  

lt was also used to try to predict the condition among 1,144 British 12-year-olds and 739 15-year-olds from New Zealand. 

But they found that the tool was not as effective on young people in those countries.

This was because there was not the same level of information available for them and different measures had been used to assess their mental health aged 18.  

Study co-author Dr Christian Keiling, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, said the results indicated the need to adapt the new test’s score according to where it will be used.  

The research was published in the journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

It was part of the Identifying Depression Early in Adolescence (IDEA) project funded by mental health research charity MQ. 

The IDEA project is a major study analysing research and data from the UK, Brazil, Nigeria and Nepal in an attempt to find universal risk factors for depression in young people.   

King’s College London is the lead institution on the project.  

Dr Keiling said: ‘In our study we tried to go beyond more traditional ways of identifying youths at high risk of depression and learn from other medical specialties that combine multiple variables to generate composite risk scores, such as the Framingham cardiovascular risk score.

‘This is relatively new in the field of mental health.’

Dr Mondelli added: ‘When developing any new risk assessment tool it is important to consider how it will work in the real world. 

‘As part of the IDEA project we are interviewing adolescents, parents and other stakeholders to understand their perceptions of this tool and the ethical implications of using it to stratify young people in terms of risk for developing depression.’  


While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months on end.

Depression can affect anyone at any age and is fairly common – approximately one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their life. 

Depression is a genuine health condition which people cannot just ignore or ‘snap out of it’.

Symptoms and effects vary, but can include constantly feeling upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

It can also cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, tiredness, having a low appetite or sex drive, and even feeling physical pain.

In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.

It is important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy or medication. 

Source: NHS Choices 


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