Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health issues experienced in childhood. Implementing school-based prevention programs during childhood, rather than adolescence, is thought to provide better mental health outcomes. The present meta-analysis aimed to investigate the efficacy of universal school-based prevention programs that target both anxiety and depression in children (aged 13 years or below), and examine three moderators (i.e., program type, primary target of program, and number of sessions) on prevention effects. PsycINFO, PubMED, and Google Scholar were systematically searched for relevant articles published up to and including January 2018.
Fourteen randomised controlled trials, consisting of 5970 children, met eligibility criteria. Prevention programs led to significantly fewer depressive symptoms at post-program (g = 0.172) and at long-term follow-up periods (g = 0.180), but not at short-term follow-up. Programs were not found to prevent anxiety symptoms across any time point. Considerable heterogeneity was observed for all effects.
Program type and length were found to moderate the relationship between prevention program and outcomes. Prevention programs were effective in preventing depressive symptoms at post-program and long-term follow-up, while no significant preventative effect on anxiety symptoms was observed.
The FRIENDS Program and programs which contained a greater number of sessions showed beneficial effects on anxiety and depressive symptoms. Universal programs aimed at preventing both anxiety and depression in children are limited. Future research should investigate the long-term evaluation of school-based prevention programs for anxiety and depression in children.
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