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Should doctors screen their patients for depression?

Updated on November 19, 2012

I recently read an article called "Adults Need Depression Screening" by Melinda T. Willis from ABC News. Apparently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (a panel of experts who influence health policies) suggested that primary care physicians screen all adults for depression during check-ups. Basically, physicians will ask their patient a series of questions and based on the answers, determine if the patient has depression and if so, what type of depression. From there, they can work to determine what course of action should be taken in the future, and so on. They found a 13% reduction in risk of depression for the screened individuals!

Continue reading for some of the reason why people should be regularly screened for depression ....

1. Depression is very under-diagnosed.

Depression is hard to diagnose because it is mainly subjective - meaning, you can't just take a blood test and be done with it (although much research is being done on trying to develop tests of this sort). Furthermore, over half of people suffering from depression never get help for it. They don't go to a doctor or a therapist, again leading to the under-diagnosis of depression.

2. Depression can be costly.

Obviously, depression is costly in terms of quality of life and relationships. What I'm talking about here, though, is literal economic cost. About $17 billion is lost each year from missed work days due to depression! Depression screening may be the step that needs to be taken to make people aware of their depression and get help, hopefully reducing that lost money. Since our country is in so much debt, it could be a win-win situation ....

3. Depression has physical symptoms.

People with depression often complain of headaches, nausea, sleeping problems, and fatigue. Even if people are aware that they have depression, which may not be the case, they often do not make the connection between the depression and these physical symptoms. A physician's job is to help with issues of the body - since depression affects the body as well as the mind, shouldn't they try to help with it?

Other possible benefits of depression screening ....

1. It may push people to get the help they need.

As I said, over half of people with depression never get help for it. With required depression screening at check-ups, people can become aware if they have depression, learn more about their depression, and be pushed to get help. There is a difference between having feelings and lingering thoughts of, "What if I have depression?" and being told that you do by a trained doctor. It makes it seem more real, which may push people to seek help such as therapy. This could lead to a decrease in self-harm, suicide, homicide, and abuse.

2. It may help people to better understand depression.

Again, people with depression can understand it more. People who think they have depression but actually don't (ex: "teenage angst") can stop being paranoid and move on with their lives, reassured that they are fine. People who don't have depression can learn more about those with depression and what all that entails through the questions they are asked, thereby helping to deal with the problem of the stigma and the misconceptions attached to depression.

How this idea can be made better ....

1. Include teenagers and children as well as adults.

The U.S. Preventative Task Force suggested that this be in place for adults only. However, many teenagers and even children do suffer from depression, as sad as it is. I'm not sure what exactly the "age limit" should be, but 18+ leaves out a lot of potential sufferers.

2. Full mental health screenings, no just depression.

Ideally, physicians would do a full mental health screening at a check-up. While depression is a huge problem, there are a lot of other mental/mood disorders that should not be left out. This would take a lot more research though, and might be costly to implement, but ideally, would be the right thing to do.

Depression and other mental health disorders are serious diseases that affect the lives of many people. Just as doctors make sure their patients have properly working organs and are cancer-free, they should make sure that their patients have proper mental health as well. I am not saying that depression screening will cure depression; I know from experience that depression and other mental illnesses are difficult life-long battles. However, I think that mental health screening can help push people in the right direction to getting help and understanding others around them.


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