One out of every four or five students who visits a university health center for a routine cold or sore throat turns out to be depressed, but most centers miss the opportunity to identify these students because they don't screen for depression, according to new research from Northwestern University's School of Medicine.
About 2 to 3 percent of these depressed students have had suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, according to the study, whose lead author, Professor Michael Fleming, recommends depression screening for every student who walks into a school health center.
"Depression screening is easy to do, we know it works, and it can save lives," said Fleming, professor of family and community medicine at Northwestern's School of Medicine.
Fleming is lead author of a paper on the findings of the study published in the January issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
He conducted the research when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin. The study surveyed 1,622 college students at college campuses including the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington and the University of British Columbia.
The study says that one in four or five students who go to a university health center for a routine cold are actually depressed. It also found that students who exercise frequently are not as depressed. "That's the one thing that seemed to be protective," Fleming said.
The study is said to be the first to screen for depression in a large population of students who are coming to campus health centers for routine care. Prior depression studies have been conducted by surveying general college samples or students in counseling centers. The frequency of depression and suicidal thoughts among campus health clinic users was nearly twice as high as rates reported in general college samples.
In a release from the university, Fleming said the consequences of failing to identify depressed students can be severe.
"These kids might drop out of school because they are so sad or hurt or kill themselves by drinking too much or taking drugs," Fleming said.
What can trigger depression? Just about anything, he said.
"Things continually happen to students -- a low grade or problems with a boyfriend or girlfriend -- that can trigger depression," Fleming said. "If you don't take the opportunity to screen at every visit, you are going to miss these kids."
Depressed students need treatment, which may include counseling and medication. These students are more likely to drink, smoke and be involved in intimate partner violence, the study found.
New technology makes depression screening easy, he said.
Students waiting for appointments at a health center can answer seven simple questions that can help a doctor make a diagnosis.
Universities typically separate mental health treatment from primary care treatment. If a student comes to a campus health center and complains about depression, he is referred to a counseling center.
"But students don't necessarily get there unless they are pretty depressed," Fleming said. "If we screen, we can try to find every student that is depressed."
Fleming said that those who believe kids won't tell the truth about being depressed are wrong.
"If they are sad and depressed, they will tell you that."
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