Sue Ferguson June 18 2001


Sue Ferguson June 18 2001



A lex Revesz was 17 when she sank into a deep depression, throwing her grades and social life into turmoil. Her family doctor saw her briefly and prescribed an antidepressant. “His attitude was, ‘Here’s a two-week trial of Zoloft. Take it. See ya,’ ” says Revesz, now 20 and a university student in Toronto. “I really thought it was the magical pill,” she says. “It took a little while until I found out that doctors aren’t always right.” She has since gained some control over her depression through a combination of other drugs and talk therapy. But that quick-fix approach, says Dr. Derryck Smith, head of psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, is symptomatic of resources stretched too thin. With an estimated one in 10 Canadian children experiencing emotional and behavioural problems serious enough to interfere with daily living, he says, psychiatrists can only take on a small fraction of cases. At best, the rest end up in the hands of physicians who, Smith notes, “only spend about 10 minutes with each patient.”

A new approach in the United States, however, claims to be able to circumvent those problems. Spearheaded by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, the positive

psychology movement focuses on prevention rather than treatment. Since 1990, Seligman’s colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have delivered programs to children aged 10 to 12—some with early signs of depression, some without—aimed at keeping the condition at bay. Their re-

sults are impressive: in twoyear follow-up studies, the incidence of depression among children in the program was half that in control groups receiving no intervention.

Quite simply, says Karen Reivich, a psychologist working with the program, “we

teach kids how to think about their thinking.” Through role-playing, skits and games, leaders of the 12 two-hour group sessions help children understand that their attitudes affect their emotional

response to situations. In the case of depressed children, they may blame themselves and see dire consequences even in cir-

cumstances when that isn’t warranted. A girl who fails a French test, for example, may feel bad not simply because she didn’t do well but because she believes her failure means she is stupid and a disappointment to her parents, and that


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she will never master French.

Once children understand how negativism affects their emotions, says Reivich, they see other responses are possible. With coaching to help them view adversity as optimists do—a temporary challenge that doesn’t affect other areas of their lives —children feel some mastery over adverse circumstances. That, says Reivich, leaves them better equipped to stave off depression.

Positive psychology developed as a critical reaction to mainstream practice which, Seligman argues, has ignored the positive emotions that are the goals of therapy, such as joy, perseverance and optimism. The assumption, adds Reivich, “is that if we treat depression, somehow we also learn about happiness. But a lack of depression is not the same as

happiness” To its critics, there is little novel in that approach. Positive psychology is “the newest phase of a recurrent movement,” says University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson. “To call it a new direction is to ignore 100 years of work.”

Also skeptical are those who believe that

depression is rooted in biol-

ogy and best treated with

drugs. But positive psychol-

ogy, Reivich counters, does

not deny the biological ele-

ment. While a predisposi-

tion to depression may be

partly determined in the

genes, she says, learned be-

haviour can, over time, help natural pes-

simists become optimistic.

Alex Revesz is familiar with the lexicon of positive psychology, although not the movement itself. She believes that challenging her defeatist response to setbacks is central to recovery. “I’ve learned is to accept my failures,” says Revesz. “You can’t build selfesteem unless you can embrace this other part of you that’s not perfect.” And she concurs with the positive psychologists on another point: you’re never too young to get on that learning curve.

Sue Ferguson