The stability of depressive symptoms in college students: An empirical demonstration of regression to the mean

  • Gordon L. Flett
  • Karel Vredenburg
  • Lester Krames
Article

Abstract

In a recent paper, Vredenburg, Flett, and Krames (1993) hypothesized that the apparent instability of depressive symptom scores in college students may be due, in part, to the phenomenon known as statistical regression to the mean. This statistical principle was demonstrated in the current study. A sample of 183 university students completed the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) at two timepoints separated by a 3-month interval. Consistent with past results, analyses revealed substantial changes in symptom scores over time with decrements being evident among many subjects with elevated symptom scores at Time 1. Examination of the amount of change over time in BDI scores indicated a pattern of findings that approximated the regression to the mean phenomenon. Statistical tests confirmed that regression to the mean accounted for a significant amount of the change in symptom scores over time. The implications of these findings are discussed in terms of the nature of depressive symptoms in students and the inappropriateness of assigning subjects to depressed or nondepressed groups on the basis of elevated scores on a self-report measure.

Key words

depression statistical regression self-reports cutpoints retest artifact 

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References

  1. 4.
    It is not assumed in the present paper that a high score on a self-report measure of depressive symptoms is equivalent to a diagnosis of depression. The two are not equated because numerous studies have shown that self-report measures tend to overestimate rates of depression compared to diagnostic surveys (e.g., Campbell & Cohn, 1991; Hodges, 1990; Oliver & Simmons, 1985; Roberts, Lewinsohn, & Seeley, 1991). This point is important to clarify since certain authors (e.g., Coyne, 1994; Fechner-Bates, Coyne, and Schwenk, 1994) have conveyed the impression that Vredenburget al. (1993) argued for the equivalence of self-reported distress and diagnosed depression. In actual fact, Vredenburget al. provided a clear statement of the need to distinguish depressive symptoms and diagnoses in student and nonstudent samples.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    The Hammen (1980) study is often discussed as evidence for the instability of depressive symptoms in students. However, Hammen also identified many students who met the criteria for a depressive disorder following a diagnostic interview. The detection of this group of depressed students led Hammen to conclude that “the clinical significance of depression in this group is not negligible” (p. 127). Thus, diagnosable depression exists in some students and it is not mild and transient.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    One explanation for the large decrease in scores is that Hammen's (1980) subjects were tested in an anonymous group setting at Time 1 with no expectation of follow-up, but Time 2 involved individual interviews. Differences in public versus private testing procedures lead to differences in self-presentational concerns that can influence the validity of findings of research on psychological distress (see Stanton, Burker, & Kershaw, 1991).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gordon L. Flett
    • 1
  • Karel Vredenburg
    • 2
  • Lester Krames
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyYork UniversityNorth YorkCanada
  2. 2.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

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