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Free Screenings Help Diagnose Depression

7,500 sites to offer the screenings Thursday

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 8, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Sometimes, a few minutes can make all the difference in the fight against depression. Just ask Patricia Dickens.

"I was ill, and I thought I was having a nervous breakdown," explains Dickens, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. A painful back injury had left her unable to work or live alone so she had moved in with her daughter's family. Dickens was taking a variety of medications, and even spending a chunk of time each day in a discussion group talking about her problems.

Life had few bright sides.

Then she filled out a short questionnaire at a free depression screening event, and her life began to change.

"It pinpointed it for me," Dickens says. "I'm depressed. This is what it is, and this is what I have to treat."

Dickens had gone to the depression screening, one of thousands of screenings held around the country that day two years ago, as part of National Depression Screening Day.

This year, the screenings take place Thursday, Oct. 9. People fill out a short screening form -- one that takes no more than three minutes to complete, organizers say, and then talk privately with a mental health professional. It's all voluntary. And it's all anonymous. But is it worth it?

"Ohhhhh, yessss!" Dickens answers with an enthusiastic sigh.

She's not alone in her endorsement. The annual depression screening event, organized by a nonprofit group called Screening for Mental Health, first started 13 years ago, when about 60 people participated, says Dr. Douglas Jacobs, the group's executive director and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. By last year, that number had grown to roughly 100,000, he says.

About 75 percent of those who fill out the screening form get referred for further evaluation or treatment, he says, and about 65 percent of them are in treatment six months later.

"That means the program works," he says.

Depression affects as many as 19 million Americans each year, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. More than simply feeling sad, true depression lingers and has physical as well as mental symptoms that can range from fatigue and a change in appetite to loss of energy, agitation and general feelings of emptiness. Treatment can include antidepressant medication and psychotherapy.

But only about half of the people who feel this way get medical help, says Jacobs, who first created the screening program and has marshaled its efforts ever since.

The screenings "are designed to teach people that there are specific signs and symptoms and specific treatments" for depression, he says.

"People should go to a screening if they have any questions about how they're feeling emotionally," Jacobs says. "If they're experiencing changes in their level of interest; changes in their energy, physical symptoms, sleep and appetite; if they've noticed that they're feeling depressed [or are] having trouble with concentration; if they're feeling worthless; and particularly if they're having thoughts that life is not worth living."

What they should not do, he adds, is try to diagnose themselves.

"The really unique feature of the screening is the opportunity to sit down with a mental health professional to review the [questionnaire]," he says. "They're not given a diagnosis, but rather a push in the right direction."

Jacobs compares it to a blood pressure screening, where you wouldn't be diagnosed with hypertension but rather counseled that your pressure was high and warrants further evaluation.

And referrals are given regardless of a person's ability to pay, he says. That's something organizations agree to in order to participate in the national effort.

This year, screenings are set for about 7,500 sites throughout the country. Besides basic depression, often called clinical depression, the screenings are designed to recognize more specific variations, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, organizers say.

All sites this year will also have information targeted for parents, a group of adults organizers describe as particularly in need of emotional support.

Screenings are completely anonymous: "No form includes a person's name," Jacobs says.

"People will find the program very non-threatening," he says. "If you don't want to fill out the forms, you don't have to. If you don't want to talk to people, you don't have to. But they will get a lot of information, for themselves or someone they're concerned about. And they'll find out where they can go for help."

Patricia Dickens knows firsthand how critical that can be.

"There's a lot of women, and men, out there who are walking around in a depressed state and don't even know it," she says. "They've walked around in this state for so long that they think it's a lifestyle now."

"You can lose yourself out there in this world, going and going," Dickens adds. "You just need to stop every now and then and take a self-check."

More information

To learn more about depression, visit the National Mental Health Association. If you want to participate Oct. 9 in the National Depression Screening Day, find a location near you by checking out the special Web site of the Screening for Mental Health organization.

SOURCES: Douglas Jacobs, M.D., executive director, Screening for Mental Health, Wellesley Hills, Mass., and associate clinical professor, psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Patricia Dickens, Rochester, N.Y.
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