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A Conversation with Jessica L. Schleider, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
2019 National Institutes of Health Early Independence Award Recipient

Jessica Schleider
What is the focus of your research project? 

Overall, my program of research is focused on developing brief and more accessible interventions for youth depression, specifically, adolescent depression, because the vast majority of adolescents who do need mental health services are not accessing them. 

Tell us about the process.

Depression is very heterogeneous; individuals can be depressed in more than 1,000 different ways, simply because of how the disorder is diagnosed. For example, two adolescents with depression can receive the same diagnosis, but have very different symptom profiles and pathways that led them there. 

My lab creates interventions that are designed for scalability, by making them as brief as possible. We also make our interventions deliverable online so they can be self-administered – that is, kids can take them on their own through their smartphone or other device. We’ve found in our work to date that certain single-session, online interventions can, to some degree, help reduce depression symptoms in teens. What's new about this grant is integrating a piece called “idiographic network science,” which may help us figure out which brief intervention may be best-tailored for which adolescents with depression. 

What we're hoping to do is determine how individual symptom networks may help us identify adolescents likely to respond better to one brief intervention versus another. It’s personalized medicine within mental health. 

How you identify adolescents that are going to be part of this study? 

We have a few different strategies. First of all, we don't require a diagnosis because most kids and their families aren’t sure of this. We advertise very broadly -- online ads, Facebook and Instagram - to reach parents and kids and make them aware of our projects. We’ll then do a very short interview, or phone screening, with those who respond to our ads, to determine whether they have symptoms that are higher than typical for their age and sex.

I’ve also been speaking at many schools in the area to spread the word. Also, my lab was recently covered in The Atlantic , which discussed the work we are doing, and that generated calls from more than 100 parents from across the U.S. who want to take part in our research. 

Is there a particular age group that will be part of this research?

Typically, depression onsets during adolescence, so we will be studying 11- to 16-year-olds.  

Parents of adolescents who are experiencing or have recently experienced anxiety, depression, or more stress than usual are strongly encouraged to contact us. Adolescents who have recently received mental health services, or who are presently getting counseling or psychotherapy, are also very likely to qualify.

Is the research done here at the University? 

Much of the data collection will be done remotely; after a one-time visit to our lab, adolescents in this study will complete surveys on their smartphones, five times per day for a three week period, reporting what depression symptoms they're experiencing at the moment. We’ll use that data to construct what are called personalized symptom networks. These symptom networks can tell us, for each individual, the symptoms that are most “central” to their overall depression symptoms over time -- that is, the “core” symptoms for each particular person. We’ll then see if the nature of their core symptoms reflects their odds of responding to brief interventions that we've developed. We’ve designed two different interventions targeting different types of depressive symptoms. So, we'll be able to explore the promise of using personalized symptom networks to “match” teens to best-fit brief interventions. 

This NIH Early Independence Award is part of the High-Risk, High Reward Research Program. How would you say this qualifies -- what are the risks,  and what are the potential rewards? 

Depression is very hard to treat, and a lot of promising paths have not led to big breakthroughs. I think this project is “high risk” in a couple of different ways. First, although we have evidence suggesting that single session interventions can help, their brevity creates a “risk” in that it’s possible these brief programs won’t benefit certain people. At the same time, there’s potentially a high reward; if they do benefit people, and we can determine who they’re most likely to help, we’ve identified evidence-based options that are infinitely more disseminable than treatments that are currently available. Second, there is the network science piece. I honestly do not know, because there hasn't been work done on it, whether personalized symptom networks can help match people to best-fit interventions. If they can, this project might reveal a method for identifying which brief intervention most benefits a given individual individual. I think that's a potentially huge reward. I don't know if it will work out as we’re expecting, and I can’t predict everything we’ll learn from this project. That's the “high-risk” part. We have the opportunity to learn many different things about the promise of personalized symptom networks and brief interventions for adolescent depression. But what those things are is yet to be determined.

So it's the potential of easy and individualized access for people with certain types of depression. 

Exactly. We're focusing in on two different symptoms that are common in depression. One is a low sense of perceived control, or a sense of hopelessness. Another is what is called anhedonia: being unable to experience pleasure in things you used to enjoy. We’ll be testing single-session interventions designed to improve either perceived control or anhedonia. Our results will tell us, for a given adolescent, whether the centrality of their hopelessness or anhedonia to their overall depression predicts their clinical response to either of these two brief interventions. We’re expecting, for example, that teens for whom perceived control is more “core” to their overall depression might respond better to a brief intervention that targets that symptom explicitly. 

You’re one of only a few clinical psychologists who've ever received this award, correct? 

I'm really happy to be one of the people representing clinical psychology in this award pool. I believe I'm the first of the clinical psychologists who've received this award to be doing intervention research. 

How did you learn you received it?  

I received a very unceremonious email with a nondescript subject. I think it was “Award.” It had been almost a year since I submitted the proposal, so I just assumed it wasn’t happening. So, it was a nice day.

Tell us about the grant application process.

Once you begin a permanent position, you're no longer eligible to apply for this award. Technically, I was only eligible for two weeks—between the time the application portal opened in mid-August 2018 and when I started here in September 2018 was essentially a two-week period. It was a funny two weeks. 

Is that how long it took you to complete? 

Oh no, I was working on it for a while. In a clinical psychology PhD program, your last year is spent doing a clinical internship, similar to a residency; I did mine at Yale Medical School. I’d say I started the application in March or April of 2018 during my internship year, doing full-time clinical work during the day and working nights on the application. 

How does it feel to be the first Stony Brook faculty member to receive this award?

It feels completely ridiculous, and amazing, and I'm really grateful. This support will hugely expand my students’ training so much better, and it will fast-track the research we want to do. 

How did you become interested in clinical psychology? 

Before college, I worked for two years at a nonprofit called Breakthrough Collaborative, an educational nonprofit that helps prepare kids from low-income families succeed in high school and gain acceptance to college.  I worked as a math and theater teacher, and I thought I might pursue a degree in education. But by the end of those two years, I kept seeing over and over again that the issues getting in the way of kids’ success had virtually nothing to do with their academic potential, and everything to do with everything else -- environments, risk factors, neighborhood violence, psychological problems, family distress -- things that I couldn’t modify by teaching algebra. So I shifted gears once I enrolled at Swarthmore College and began working in a clinical psychology lab, focused on adolescent depression prevention. I’d never conducted research before, but I immediately thought it was the coolest thing in the world—using statistics and numbers to figure out how to build more effective interventions. 

And so what made you decide to come to Stony Brook? 

The Department of Psychology is amazing here, and it is especially incredible to be a part of Stony Brook’s Clinical Psychology program. Kindness, collegiality, and scientific rigor are all exemplified here—it’s rare to find all three in one place!  This is exactly the kind of environment I wanted to work in.