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Screening For Depression

Depression can be a very debilitating condition, but many sufferers don't realize they have it. Last week, a government panel of medical experts recommended that primary care physicians screen all adult patients for depression. In Tuesday's HealthWatch segment, Early Show's Health Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay has the details.

After looking at numerous clinical trials that have been done on screening depression, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of experts, has found that 5 to 9 percent of Americans suffer from depression. And they also found that up to half of those cases go undiagnosed - and untreated.

This task force is recommending that primary care physicians make screening for depression part of their routine when evaluating patients, just like they would check for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It's being suggested that questions be included on a form that the patient completes or that the physician ask the patient a few questions about depression during the office visit. No particular approach is considered better than another.

Most mental health conditions are taken care of by primary care physicians and they have the ability to prescribe medication for depression, if necessary.

The panel recommended that the patient be asked two basic questions:

  • "Over the past two weeks, have you felt down, depressed and hopeless?
  • "Over the past two weeks, have you felt little interest or pleasure in doing things?"
If the patient answers yes to either one of these questions, it doesn't necessarily mean that the person is depressed. But, it indicates that the doctor should delve further and ask more questions.

Many people may feel temporary feelings of depression after the loss of a loved one for example, which is normal. But, when feelings of sadness become overwhelming and persistent to the point that it impacts how a person functions in his daily life, he may be depressed.

Signs of depression include:

  • Continual feelings of sadness, despair and hopelessness
  • Lack of interest in activities that are normally enjoyed
  • Severe loss or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Based on the studies that this panel looked at, it found that it's not enough to screen for depression. Panelists want primary care physicians to create a system in their offices to recommend therapy, prescribe medication if needed, and to follow up to make sure the patient gets treatment.
    The objective is to reduce the number of patients who are falling through the cracks and not getting diagnosed and treated.

    The most susceptible people are women, people with a family history of depression, the unemployed and people who are suffering from a chronic illness.

    As for children, the group estimates that up to 2 percent of children and 4.4 percent of adolescents who see primary care physicians suffer from depression. It's recommended that their doctors be aware of possible signs of depression in young people. But, there hasn't been enough research on these age groups yet for them to make a strong recommendation for screening. Of course, if a parent sees signs of depression in his child, he should seek their physician's advice.

    The bottom line is this study is important because it makes treating mental health a priority and it's a reminder to all of us about the important connection between mind and body.

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