Since 2002, Antonio Polo (associate professor, Psychology) has enhanced and expanded Act & Adapt, a program that teaches teens and pre-teens how to tackle stress and depression by changing their behavior (act) or by adjusting their perceptions and expectations (adapt). This year, his work was recognized with a $458,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“The grant will help us reach more African-American and Latino kids who show signs of depression and who are unlikely to receive services in traditional mental health clinics,” says Polo. “Through the program, these kids gain the skills they need to have more control over their moods and to improve their emotional state when they’re feeling down.”
For the past five years, Polo — with a team of graduate students, undergraduate students, and staff from the DePaul Family and Community Center — has delivered Act & Adapt in a Chicago elementary school, refining the program’s components, working with families to reinforce new skills, and discovering ways to optimize student engagement. Over 12 weeks, the youth meet in small groups once a week; they watch short, professional video clips from a two-hour film that serve as a launching pad for sharing personal stories and modeling new behavior. The school setting and targeted populations — unique to the DePaul program — are fundamental to its success.
“Bringing Act & Adapt to the kids — rather than expecting them to come to a clinic — has enabled us to be much more effective in finding the students, reaching out to them, destigmatizing the therapeutic process, and delivering the support these kids need,” says Polo. “The school is a strong partner in achieving real benefits. With the grant, we’re expanding from one school to several.”
As a counselor in the program, Sarah Bostick (Ph.D. student, Clinical Psychology) attests to the importance of context: “Research shows that school, specifically, is the #1 place kids seek services, but schools in under-served communities don’t have the resources to respond. Act & Adapt satisfies a huge unmet need.  In the school, we can create collaborative relationships that include the teachers, who are certainly a critical part of these kids’ lives. Last, but not least important, the parents trust a school-based program, and their kids can participate without putting more stress on the family.”
“We rarely get resistance from the students — they want to participate,” adds Polo. “Kids know when they’re struggling and when they need support. Also, frankly, the fact that we’re from DePaul, a well-regarded university with strong community connections, and that we’re paying attention to them makes them feel good.”
The grant will be used for a few program enhancements: 1) materials, including the two-hour film, will be dubbed and subtitled in Spanish to allow immigrant parents to participate fully; 2) a new website will enable students and families to reinforce the skills learned in the weekly group therapy sessions; and 3) program expansion — with more activities, community building, and access to local resources — will create a greater support system during program delivery and beyond. Over the next few years, Act & Adapt will get closer to being standardized for broad distribution. Also, with the grant, the program is including — for the first time — therapists from Illinois Masonic/Advocate Health.
“This program is real-world; it’s not research without practical application,” says Will Martinez, who credits Act & Adapt as a primary reason he decided to come to DePaul to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. “Our assessments — immediate and one year later — show really impressive results: the majority of the 32 kids who have completed the program so far report reduced levels of distress and depression. When we interview parents, they talk about how skeptical they were in the beginning, and then how meaningful the program became to their kids. Everyone — the parents and the kids — report improvements in how the kids are getting along with family and friends and how well they’re doing in school. That’s gratifying.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Bostick agrees. “The work we’re doing in Act & Adapt really matters.” And with the grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, it will matter to many more students reached by the program.