Research highlights from Dr. Obvious: Depressed kids have experienced more depressing events
N.G.- The good Doctor is back again this month with his latest work in a field that is quite different from the last major break-through. You must have quite a diverse lab?
N.G.- Well, the new study, which is so new that it is appearing in the May, 2009 issue of Journal of Affective Disorders (despite coming out online last October…), aimed to potentially explore the influence of age and the frequency of “stressful life events” on depression. Dr. Obvious, how did you and your co-authors define a “stressful life event” (SLE).
Dr.O.- Well, those episodes were essentially moments not typically associated with the daily routine that may actually induce a change to said daily routine, which could have an effect that is remembered by the one who experienced the episode for the rest of his or her days on earth. And it was stressful. It really is quite scientific. Actually, part of the advance provided by the paper was the algorithm we worked out from scratch to define SLEs. It’s all in the 127-page supplement, but to cut to the chase, the algorithm is really rooted in this one equation:
(1) SLE = [(Amount of Crying)*(expletives uttered under breath)²]/(# times people said “Oh, that’s not so bad!”)
Anything greater than 3.46 was 2 S.D. from the mean and was thus defined as an SLE.
N.G.- Right. Well now that we have that straightened out, tell us what you found. (cont.)
Dr.O.- Well, the study included more than 600 depressed children and adolescents and an even greater number of non-depressed peers. We examined the number of stressful events (based on the algorithm) and found that amazingly, depressed children had experienced far more emotional events than their non-depressed peers. We were really taken aback.
N.G.- But Dr. Obvious, that seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome, and in fact, perhaps one that could very well have been the working hypothesis going in, no?
Dr.O.- Ahhh, but this is why you are just an editor and I am in the field doing the research. Of course it seems like that would be a perfectly sound working hypothesis, BUT it takes years of training and intuition to propose the opposite. Therefore, we took the bold approach of proposing precisely what we thought would NOT occur- children who were completely stressed out and emotionally scarred wouldn’t suffer from depression, while those who experienced a relaxed upbringing in a quiet village, wanting for nothing, would exhibit severely-depressed symptoms.
N.G.- That’s fine if you want to take that stance, but what possible speculation could have been the justification for why you would take that stance??
Dr.O.- Don’t have the foggiest. But I didn’t have to think about it. Luckily, the data turned out the other way and I got to write the paper from the angle of multiple SLEs = more depression. A much easier sell. In fact, Dr. Gray, I’m a bit insulted that you would think I would have already had a “discussion section” worked out in my head even before I got the results. I do NOT, sir, go into experiments looking for specific results, potentially influencing the data and analysis with bias. No sir!! I went into this study with a working hypothesis, but, absolutely no pre-conceived notions!
N.G.- Well, there was no intention to doubt your integrity, so I apologize. Back to the research, you really haven’t touched on the one aspect of the study that was quite striking. Namely, the speed with which these depressed children acquire large numbers of SLEs. Instead of a gradual accumulation over time (the obvious trajectory one would expect), the depressed cohort had the same number of SLEs at age 7 as their non-depressed peers did at age 17. So clearly, this is an extremely rapid accumulation of emotional distress during a very critical time in the lives of these developing youth. A problem indeed and a key factor that should be quantified in clinical interviews whenever psychologists or psychiatrists are assessing new adolescent patients.
Dr.O.- Yes. Depressed children have led depressing lives.
N.G.- Well, we must wrap this up, but one final question: Why did you conduct this study in Hungary?
Dr.O.- Well, in Hungary, I was granted access to a very large population of depressed children so I jumped at the chance to gain statistical power. That and funding troubles back at home.
N.G.- I see…many labs are suffering from a lack of funding due to budget cuts, smaller increases in federal funding and, of course, the economy is wrecking havoc on the private foundations.
Dr.O.- Oh. Well, yes…but it was nothing like that. I didn’t get funding because the granting body said the results of my proposal were already too fricking obvious.
Mayer, L., Lopez-Duran, N., Kovacs, M., George, C., Baji, I., Kapornai, K., Kiss, E., & Vetró, �. (2009). Stressful life events in a clinical sample of depressed children in Hungary Journal of Affective Disorders, 115 (1-2), 207-214 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2008.08.018