Thesis Title

A Preventative Intervention for Children at Risk for Depression Using Learned Optimism and Art Therapy

Graduation Date

Summer 2002

Document Type

Master's Thesis

Document Form


Degree Name

Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy

Degree Granting Institution

Notre Dame de Namur University

Program Name

Art Therapy


Lizbeth Martin, PhD

First Reader

Richard Carolan, EdD, ATR-BC

Second Reader

Roberta Hauser, ATR-BC


The following study assesses the course of depression and its growing affliction in children. Depression creates unique problems in childhood because it is a gateway disorder leading to many serious psychological, emotional and social problems. Standards of treatment for childhood depression are based on adult forms of treatment - principally individual psychodynamic therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy. The use of antidepressants with pubescent children is complicated by the growing child’s physical and emotional changes. Current research has shown that antidepressants have not proven to be effective in children (Moldenhauer, 1999), and the long-term impact of such drug use is unknown.

This study proposes an early preventative intervention for children at-risk for depression using art therapy and a treatment theory called “learned optimism”. This intervention aims to reduce depressive symptoms by combating learned helplessness and pessimistic explanatory styles. The intervention/program focuses on cognitive training by teaching children how to monitor automatic thoughts, evaluate and dispute the accuracy of such thoughts and generate alternatives. In addition, the program teaches children skills to handle interpersonal conflicts and social problems. The intervention program proposed in this study is based on an after school program developed and tested

Art therapy brings unique tools to the intervention, providing an interactive and creative format to address the developmental needs of children at-risk of depression. Art therapy (1) alleviates the symptoms of depression in that the process of making art can enliven, energize and create a sense of pleasure (Malchiodi, 1998), (2) provides a strong cognitive/developmental match for younger children, and (3) produces a physical object representing the child’s unique ability to creatively solve problems while reinforcing the cognitive skills being taught and the concept of learned optimism.