Although under-diagnosed, anxiety and depression are among the most prevalent psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents, leading to severe impairment, increased risk of future psychiatric problems, and a high economic burden to society. Universal prevention may be a potent way to address these widespread problems.
There are several benefits to universal relative to targeted interventions because there is limited knowledge as to how to screen for anxiety and depression in the general population. Earlier meta-analyses of the prevention of depression and anxiety symptoms among children suffer from methodological inadequacies such as combining universal, selective, and indicated interventions in the same analyses, and comparing cluster-randomized trials with randomized trials without any correction for clustering effects.
The present meta-analysis attempted to determine the effectiveness of universal interventions to prevent anxiety and depressive symptoms after correcting for clustering effects.
A systematic search of randomized studies in PsychINFO, Cochrane Library, and Google Scholar resulted in 30 eligible studies meeting inclusion criteria, namely peer-reviewed, randomized or cluster-randomized trials of universal interventions for anxiety and depressive symptoms in school-aged children.
Sixty-three percent of the studies reported outcome data regarding anxiety and 87 % reported outcome data regarding depression. Seventy percent of the studies used randomization at the cluster level.
There were small but significant effects regarding anxiety (.13) and depressive (.11) symptoms as measured at immediate posttest. At follow-up, which ranged from 3 to 48 months, effects were significantly larger than zero regarding depressive (.07) but not anxiety (.11) symptoms.
There was no significant moderation effect of the following pre-selected variables: the primary aim of the intervention (anxiety or depression), deliverer of the intervention, gender distribution, children's age, and length of the intervention.
Despite small effects, we argue for the possible clinical and practical significance of these programs. Future evaluations should carefully investigate the moderators and mediators of program effects to identify active program components.
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