Pediatricians: All Teens Should Be Screened For Depression

By Paul Fuhr 03/14/18

Only half of adolescents suffering from depression actually get diagnosed before adulthood.

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doctor talking to her male patient at office

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has announced new guidelines that recommend all teens be screened annually for depression.

According to NPR, only 50% of adolescents suffering from depression officially get diagnosed before adulthood, which means “2 in 3 depressed teens don’t get the care that could help them.”

The updated AAP guidelines call for all teenagers between the ages of 12 and 21 to be given yearly depression screenings—largely in the hopes of curbing teen suicide. Columbia University’s Dr. Rachel Zuckerbrot, a child psychiatrist and associate professor who helped author the new guidelines, noted that the screening idea has been in the works for a while.

Undiagnosed depression among adolescents is “a huge problem,” Dr. Zuckerbrot observed, adding that physicians are in a unique position to help struggling teenagers.

Depression screenings can be conducted during wellness visits or sports physicals, with pediatricians generally providing young people a self-evaluation form about their emotional health.

“Teenagers are often more honest when they're not looking somebody in the face who's asking questions,” Zuckerbrot said. “It's an opportunity for the adolescent to answer questions about themselves privately.”

Questionnaires typically pose a wide variety of questions, ranging from inquiries about eating habits to interest levels in activities. “For instance, one [questionnaire] asks: ‘Over the past two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems: feeling down, depressed or hopeless? Or, little interest or pleasure in doing things?’” according to NPR.

Additionally, the new AAP guidelines urged parents and families of depressed teens to keep them away from firearms. Since suicide is a leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 17, firearm availability is an obvious yet misunderstood concern among adolescents.

For example, a 2012 AAP study concluded that “physician counseling of parents about firearm safety appears to be effective, but firearm safety education programs directed at children are ineffective.” In other words, it’s up to parents to monitor their kids’ safety, not to mention understanding their specific needs and problems. 

In recent years, the U.S. has done a better job of focusing on mental health care for young people, NPR reported.

“As a nation this has become part of the dialogue; it’s increasing,” Dr. Doug Newton, a child psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente observed. “People are aware of what’s happening in our schools and the importance of mental health.”

Newton pointed to Find Your Words, his firm’s depression awareness program, as one of many efforts aimed at erasing stigmas around mental health issues. “Stigma is a huge challenge, specifically for adolescents,” he said. “Oftentimes they’re not coming in [to doctors’ offices] to get help because of the stigma attached.”

It’s unfortunate, Newton added, since depression among young people is very common. (There is a 20% chance that teenagers will struggle with depression or anxiety.) More than anything, though, diagnosing depression in time is less important than diagnosing it correctly.

“Sometimes teens are acting out or misbehaving,” Zuckerbrot says, “when they're really suffering from depression.”

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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