Suicide rates in the United States have been increasing over the last 20 years, with the disparity between rural and urban areas widening over time. Youth face some of the toughest challenges, with nearly twice as many rural adolescents committing suicide as their urban peers.
Depression is one of the biggest risk factors leading up to suicide, which is why a senior in the psychology degree program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is spending her next year focusing on this topic.
“Children with mental illnesses have always been a passion for me, because I feel like there is so much that you can do with children while they are developing,” Caroline Page said. “If you can help them to overcome those problems now they won’t have to deal with them, or they will know how to deal with them, when they become adults.”
Peer victimization as a risk factor for depression
As one of the leading health issues for youth and the highest factor for suicide, depression is a topic that requires attention from researchers, health care professionals, school administrators and parents. So far, little empirical data answers questions as to why rural youth appear to be struggling more with these mental health issues, Caroline Page explained.
“I have always been a big advocate for recognizing mental health symptoms in children,” Page said. “I feel like this is something that is commonly overlooked. Often, children’s feelings are pushed aside and their mental health is not seen as a priority, even when it needs to be.”
Many things cause depression, but one of the main factors is social anxiety. Page’s research focuses specifically on how peer victimization affects depression. This peer victimization includes all negative peer experiences, including bullying or rejection, feelings of abandonment, hurtful teasing and more.
“There is a direct line between peer victimization and depression,” Page said. “Peer victimization often causes depression or symptoms of depression, and we want to see how parental support serves as a moderator.”
Parents as moderators
For many kids, their main support system comes from their parents, guardians and family. If those who should be the support treat depressive symptoms and other mental health concerns with disregard, children are more likely to do the same. This can lead to further problems, as the child may not learn how to cope and overcome their struggles.
“Children who have high parental support will often see a decrease in depression symptoms,” Page said. “When adolescents don’t have that support their symptoms will often stay the same or even worsen.”
Page’s research looks at what parents can do to alleviate mental health symptoms and support their children through times of sadness, fear, grief and anxiety.
“If a child is feeling the depressive symptoms, they are often at an age where they cannot understand the complexity of what is happening,” Page said. “If a parent disregards it, the child will also disregard it and won’t be able to truly look at their symptoms and find a healthy plan of action.”
When parents do notice the symptoms and take action, those children have a more likely chance to deal with their mental health and become stronger in the future.
Rural environment increases risks
Rural communities often face additional stigmas related to mental health, which can make things more challenging for children and families. This is only one of the possible reasons youth who live in rural areas have a higher likelihood to struggle.
The problem is very real, and is even greater in rural areas, Page explained.
“The goal of this research is to give insight to show that these things are really happening,” Page said. “I want this project to serve as a push forward for the rural communities, so either there can be more collaboration or even just more advocacy for these communities.”
The bulk of Page’s research comes directly from online surveys. First, children complete a screener called “children depression inventory,” which gives a starting look into where a child is in the range of scores. If a child scores with increased depressive symptoms, they will fill out an additional questionnaire.
The survey will include questions asking the children when they feel sad, how they feel sad, how they view school, how they view their peers, how their parents react when they do feel sad and other related questions.
Parents of the children with the depressive symptoms will also answer a questionnaire to give additional insights. Questions in this survey ask how the parents view mental health, how likely they are to seek treatment if they or their child showed symptoms of psychopathology and other similar topics.
While a simple concept, the study gives an effective look into the thought patterns, attitudes and feelings of rural adolescents and their parents.
Using the research for future change
While Page hopes her study serves as a stepping-stone for other researchers, she also wants to help parents give more attention to mental health concerns and find the right ways to support their child through challenging situations.
“It is so important for parents to take note of different things that might come up with their child,” Page said. “If they are feeling sad, parents shouldn’t take it lightly but talk with them about it. Even if they don’t have depression, anxiety or any mental illness, it is still good to have those talks with them to understand why they are feeling what they are feeling.”
Page recently earned a REACH award for her research and will continue working on the project over the school year. She is set to work with Sarah Kertz, associate professor of clinical psychology, as the team focuses the project on rural areas.
After graduation, Page hopes to get her Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Following that, her goal is to work with in Veterans Affairs in mental health related topics.