New Feinberg study recommends depression tests

Jillian Sandler and Jillian Sandler

A surprisingly high number of college students heading to their campus health center to treat a cold or strep throat may be facing an illness more difficult to cure, researchers found: depression.

A study conducted by Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that one out of every four to five students who visit health centers is depressed, according to a news release. Two to three percent of these depressed students were also found to have suicidal thoughts or to be considering suicide.

The study surveyed 1,622 college students at institutions including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington and the University of British Columbia. The students answered a short survey when they entered the health clinics at their respective colleges, answering questions about depression, alcohol use, smoking and sensation-seeking.

Dr. Michael Fleming, professor of family and community medicine at Feinberg and the lead author of a paper detailing the study’s results published in the January issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, said he conducted the study because depression is a common illness among college students and one that primary physicians rarely address.

“It’s an opportunity to identify high-risk students before they get into bad situations,” he said.

Universities should begin implementing a screening process for depression that asks students if they have been feeling sad or hopeless and if they have lost interest in activities they once enjoyed, Fleming said. These questions could be administered by a nurse or doctor or through a survey. If, based on their answers, students show signs of depression, they can be referred to psychological services.

“There are a lot of different ways clinics can do the screening on a routine basis for everyone coming in the door,” Fleming said.

NU’s Counseling and Psychological Services could not be reached for comment about implementing such a screening process.

Some students have expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of being screened for depression while receiving primary care.

Weinberg senior Eric English said he thinks the screening can identify high-risk students.

“I think it’d be good to have a way to find those kids because there’s a good chance they’re not going to come forward about it,” he said.

Weinberg senior Abby Lembersky said she feels that screening for depression through the use of a survey is ineffective.

“It’s too general,” she said. “Some people could be having a bad day because they’re going to health services already, so making a blanket statement about who needs to go get counseling is not a good idea.”

Nonetheless, screening for depression is integral in ensuring that it is addressed at its earliest stages before it becomes a more serious or even fatal condition, Fleming said.

“Identifying people early can make a difference,” Fleming said. “That’s why we did this study.”

Though some depression patients can relieve their symptoms on their own by exercising, going on vacations or talking to friends, Fleming said, many patients need professional help to manage the illness. This assistance can only be given if depression patients are pinpointed, he said.

“People are much more likely to go into more severe depression after a month or two,” he said. “Once things settle in for a while, it spirals out of control. We need to focus resources on prevention rather than reacting afterwards.”

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