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'We are saving lives': UT Southwestern research changing approach to mental health challenges for teens

The goal of the program is to get teens comfortable with conversations around mental health to help themselves and the generations to come.

DALLAS — "We have PE for physical health. Why can't we have something that is specifically for mental health?"

In Texas, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people 15 to 24.

"We wait too long and that's why we get struck when there is... depression and suicide... because it remains hidden," said Dr. Madhukar Trivedi.

Trivedi and other researchers at UT Southwestern's Center for Depression Research are changing the way we approach mental health challenges. 

A major component of their work happens inside schools. They're focusing on 8th-12th grade campuses with a cutting edge, evidence-based program called YAM, which stands for Youth Aware of Mental Health.

"We have reached about 25,000 students," Trivedi said, referencing the reach so far in North Texas.

RELATED: How a North Texas group is studying depression and mental health

YAM started as a research project in Europe in response to rising suicide rates. More than 85,000 teenagers in 16 countries have now gone through the program. 

Study results found YAM reduced new cases of suicide attempts and severe suicidal ideation by half. New cases of depression dropped by 30% in younger people participating in the program.

"We are saving lives," said Dr. Tobi Fuller who is in charge of the school-based mental health program at UT Southwestern. "We train school partners, counselors, teachers who want to do this program and make sure it is sustainable within their school district."

YAM facilitators conduct the program inside classrooms over five sessions, 45-60 minutes each.

It's not only for youth identified as "at risk" and it's not a counseling session.

"They are more willing to open up to their peers than to an adult," Fuller explained.

YAM is unique in that it's student-led. Through roleplay and open dialogue, teenagers bring up real-life situations and problem solve together.

"We want them to focus on three things: how would you feel, what would you do and what could happen next," Fuller said.

The goal of the program is to get teens comfortable with conversations around mental health while equipping them with tools and resources to help themselves and others for generations to come.

"We are changing family trees and family trajectories," Fuller said.

YAM is approved by the Texas Education Agency as a suicide prevention and intervention program.

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