What is your PhD dissertation about?

“Depression in young people is often overlooked because there is little research, the signs that are present are attributed to puberty, or the young people themselves fail to apply for help. They want to be independent and not be overly reliant on their parents or any other authority figures. As a result, their depression, and in certain rare cases their suicidal ideation as well, remain untreated, and may cause complex psychological problems at a later age. My doctoral research is about risk factors in depression and suicidality and the effectiveness of the STORM depression prevention technique.”

How did you conduct your research project?

“By adding a questionnaire on symptoms of depression to the general health survey carried out among all secondary school pupils by the GGD [regional public health service – ed.], we were able to get a good understanding of adolescents’ ‘psychological wellbeing’. A high score in terms of suicidal ideation constitutes a ground for referral to a GGZ [department of mental health care – ed.], and if there are any direct signs of suicidality, the pupil may get an emergency referral to a crisis response team.

“We also approached adolescents who were not suicidal but were feeling very sombre and asked them to take part in our study. It was an intensive procedure in which we didn’t just to talk to the adolescents themselves, but also called their parents, told them their child was feeling rather sombre and asked them if their child was allowed to take part in our study. All that work really paid off, because even if the adolescents didn’t take part in our study, their parents were now aware of their child’s situation.”

What were the main conclusions you drew?

“The most important conclusion was that STORM is effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is relevant because the combination of anxiety and depression often results in complex problems. At the moment, our programme is the best approach to long-term depression prevention in adolescents in the Netherlands. Moreover, our questionnaires gave us a direct result in terms of tackling suicidality in that we identified a few suicidal adolescents. We also found that suicidal ideation is very common in adolescents.”

Having completed your dissertation, what kind of recommendation would you make?

“More attention must be paid to a timely recognition of symptoms and to ensuring that the adolescents receive help. Adolescents who are at increased risk of suicidality and depression must be referred to specialist care at an earlier stage. An active screening programme will result in early identification and early referrals, which will help us prevent adolescents from continuing going about their business without receiving any treatment for their symptoms.”

Why did you choose this particular subject?

“Not everyone is aware of this, but I went through a rough patch myself whilst in secondary school. I witnessed a suicide and suffered depression. So I dropped out of my pre-university school and chose to attend a VET college instead, to become a hairdresser. I worked as a hair and make-up artist in a hair salon and in a theatre.

“At one point, though, I started getting antsy. I wanted to do more with my life. I wanted to use my brain, so I got a degree in educational sciences from a university of applied sciences. I didn’t find the degree programme very difficult, so I decided to go on and get a degree from a regular university as well. I did well enough there to be allowed to take the Honours programme. And now I’m getting a doctorate, all without ever having passed my pre-university school-leaving exams!”

Karlijn Heesen’s thesis Image credit: Ferayed Hok

So is this dissertation secretly about you?

“When people see the cover of my book, they will sometimes guess that the girl between the cranes is me. Thankfully, her hair has a different colour from mine, so I’ll point that out to them. Maybe my own story is a factor in the background, but it’s not something I think about a lot when I’m busy conducting science. I tried to liven up the boring numbers and figures in the prologue and epilogue. My study involves the stories of many adolescents. They’re in a special phase of their lives, characterised by the frustrations that come with puberty, parents having arguments with each other and other kinds of complex problems. The dissertation is about them.”

Did you enjoy conducting doctoral research?

“It’s a really fun job, as I particularly realised towards the end. At first I spent a lot of time visiting schools to collect data. Afterwards, all those data had to be analysed, and then I had to start writing. I can’t think of another job that is as varied as this one, in terms of the things you do and learn. And I combined it with treating kids at a department of mental health care for children and adolescents. It took me five years, and in the meantime, I had two children.”

Are you feeling unhappy? Then be sure to schedule an appointment with the university’s own psychologist. Have you been having suicidal thoughts? Please call the suicide prevention hotline at 113 or use the hotline’s chat feature to talk to an expert (24/7).