Connectedness important in preventing depression in Pacific adolescents

Lisa Gossage, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Auckland University of Technology

A new study uses network analysis to demonstrate how connectedness with family, friends, and school can prevent depression in Pacific adolescents.

Youth mental health in New Zealand is declining and the impact on Pacific youth, particularly young women, is disproportionate.

Lisa Gossage, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), has published a research article in the scientific Journal of Affective Disorders which examines the relationship between risk factors and the specific symptoms of depression in Pacific adolescents aged 17 years.

Most of the key risk factors for depression identified in this study – such as the relationship with mother, relationship with friends, school connectedness, and impulsivity – support those from other research.

“Our study identifies the associations with these risk factors at the symptom level, which could guide the development of targeted interventions for depression in adolescents. These findings highlight the importance of family, friends, and school connectedness for good mental health among young people in New Zealand’s Pacific communities,” says Gossage.

Network analysis

Psychological network analysis is increasingly being used to investigate depression at the symptom level, rather than measuring depression as a single construct.

This is the first known study to model depression among Pacific adolescents using network analysis. Researchers employed data visualisation to gain a greater understanding of the complex interplay and associations between risk factors and various symptoms of depression.

“The results illustrate the various ways that depression can manifest itself. Different risk factors were associated with different symptoms, and some symptoms were not associated with any risk factors. These system networks provide valuable information, highlighting targets for more nuanced prevention strategies and treatment plans based on the depression profiles of individuals or groups,” says Gossage.

Pacific Islands Families Study

Researchers from Auckland University of Technology, Deakin University, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, and Nottingham Trent University were able to draw on high-quality data from the world’s largest longitudinal study of Pacific peoples.

This study builds on the important work conducted by the AUT Pacific Islands Families Study, which tracks the health and development of New Zealand-Pacific children. It has collected data at regular intervals from a cohort of 1398 children since their birth in 2000.

Connectedness with parents

This study shows that two symptoms of depression, feeling alone and self-hatred, were associated with the highest risk factor for depression among this group of Pacific adolescents – a poor quality mother-child relationship. These symptoms had the highest centrality, or number of connections, within the network analysis.

“Based on the network model of psychopathology, that depression symptoms are related and likely to reinforce and trigger each other, designing interventions aimed at symptoms with high centrality could have many beneficial effects,” says Gossage.

Associate Professor El-Shadan Tautolo, Director of the AUT PIF Study and co-author of this research article, says: “Previous findings from the Pacific Islands Families Study have highlighted the vital importance of the mother-child relationship in supporting resilience and positive development outcomes for Pasifika children”.

Connectedness with peers

This study demonstrates that two school-associated symptoms of depression, not having enough friends or feeling part of the school, were associated with another key risk factor for depression – poor quality friendship or lack of friendship.

Pacific peoples often hold more collectivist views than Pakeha and this could be responsible in part for the strong relationship between school connectedness, friendship, and depression.

Tautolo says: “Schools and the learning environment are increasingly important in guiding the positive development of Pasifika students. It’s crucial that the necessary resources are provided to enable schools to create the culture and environment for our young people to thrive”.

This study is part of a programme of linked multi-disciplinary AUT-led projects investigating the causality of anxiety and depression among Pacific adolescents, undertaken with the support of a Marsden Fund grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand.