Fed Advisory Group Urges Doctors to Screen Teens for Depression

Fed Advisory Group Urges Doctors to Screen Teens for Depression
General Health

A federal advisory group said Monday that doctors should screen teens for depression, but the number of students that benefit from the directive might be relatively small.

Physicians are only supposed to screen adolescents if they have access to mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat them, and monitor their progress. That could be difficult to do, considering it’s difficult to find quality mental health services for adults, and even harder for teenagers. [1]

Mental health programs in the U.S. have lost billions in funding in recent years, according to National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. About 36% to 40% of teens with depression receive treatment for the disease, and that often only occurs after a serious breakdown or an arrest. On average, young depressed patients wait 7 years between the time they develop symptoms and when they finally receive treatment.

“When it comes to mental illness, we do too little, too late,” said Lieberman, Jeffrey Lieberman, a professor and chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of experts who advise the federal government on medicine and health policy, took an in-depth look at studies of major depression in adolescents ages 12 to 18. Depression is defined by symptoms lasting at least 2 weeks that significantly impair an individual’s ability to function at work, school or socially.

Read: 7 Natural Solutions for Alleviating Depression

Task for member Alex Kemper, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical School in North Carolina, said that simple screening tests often successfully detect mild or moderate forms of the illness.

According to the report, about 8% of teens reported having major depression in the past year.

The task force only recommended screening teens to have access to help because they said that screening adolescents who have no options won’t do anyone much good.

But for the few, fortunate kids that do have choices when it comes to mental health care, a screening could drastically impact the direction of their lives. Depression is associated with the risk of teen pregnancy, suicide and drug use, the task force found. These individuals are also at high risk for drug and alcohol abuse, as people with depression often use the substances to “self-medicate.”

Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness disorders develop by age 14, according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Suicide has been a leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 24. This study notes:

“The prevalence rate of youth with mental disorders within the juvenile justice system is found to be consistently higher than those within the general population of adolescents. Estimates reveal that approximately 50 to 75 percent of the 2 million youth encountering the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a mental health disorder. Approximately 40 to 80 percent of incarcerated juveniles have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder. Two-thirds of males and three-quarters of females in previous studies of juvenile offender detention facilities, were found to meet criteria for at least one mental health disorder. An additional one-tenth also met criteria for a substance use disorder.”

The screenings are important.

Most doctor visits, however, last only 10 to 15 minutes, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll have the time to screen young patients for depression. Jonathan Winickoff, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, says a quick and easy way of screening for depression is to give teens a short survey on the computer, which can calculate the score electronically, before the teen’s appointment.

(Though perhaps there are better ways.)

Winickoff says he asks teen patients to fill out a 9-question screening test in the waiting room, with pen and paper. This allows them to give honest answers without their parents’ intrusive and sometimes intimidating presence.


[1] USA Today

[2] PMC/4772248