The Importance of National Depression Screening Day

October 11, 2018

For nearly 30 years now, October 11th has marked National Depression Screening Day. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depressive disorder—commonly referred to simply as depression—“is more than just feeling sad or going through a rough patch.” It can affect not only a person’s thoughts and feelings but also their behavior and physical health. Symptoms can range from changes in sleep and appetite to a lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. A severe form of depression, Major Depressive Disorder, lasts longer than two weeks and interferes with normal activities at home, work, or school. Without proper treatment, depression for some can become debilitating, but with early detection and the right treatment plan—whether psychotherapy, medication, or exercise and lifestyle changes—depression can be successfully managed.

It has been estimated that roughly 16 million American adults—nearly 7% of the population—experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. These numbers are even higher among certain sub-populations. A recent multi-national World Health Organization study, led by Randy P. Auerbach, PhD, an Associate Professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, revealed that 21% of first-year college students surveyed across eight countries reported symptoms meeting the criteria for major depression. “It’s alarming that nearly one-fifth of college students are experiencing depression,” says Dr. Auerbach, “and unfortunately, we know that only a small minority of these students will receive the services needed to manage their symptoms. Left unchecked, depression may lead to a range of negative consequences, including academic failure, increased substance use, and in some instances, suicidal behavior.”  

Screening for depression helps to identify those suffering from the disorder so they can get the help that they need. Adolescents represent a particularly vulnerable group, as research has shown that approximately 2 out of 3 teens with depression do not get treatment. In an attempt to address this problem, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently provided updated guidelines for depression screening, including a call for annual, universal screening for those 12 years of age and older. These guidelines also urge families with depressed adolescents to restrict access to firearms, since teen suicide risk is linked to availability of guns.

According to Rachel Zuckerbrot, MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and one of the developers of these new guidelines, “Adolescence is an important time for teens to figure out their identity and learn to navigate the world. Teens who are depressed have a negative view of themselves, experience difficult peer interactions, and may fail at school or other endeavors.” She notes that depression occurring in adolescence can have a powerful impact on all aspects of teens’ lives: “These experiences at such a critical time in their lives can have serious consequences. We must work hard to identify at risk teens and get them help early on. We know that there are evidence-based treatments for adolescent depression that work, but too many people think the depressed mood of a teen is normal and that they will just grow out of it. We need to work together to prevent teen suffering.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for that same age group for Major Depressive Disorder, and some pediatricians have already worked these (usually questionnaire-based) screenings into their regular visits with patients.

Screening for Mental Health offers more information on depression assessment, along with an anonymous screening that can be completed here.