Founded in Mass., National Depression Screening Day turns 25

10/28/14 - Boston, Massachusetts Images of the School of Public Health Talbot Building on the BU MED Campus. Photo by Dan Aguirre for Boston University Photography.
BU will have depression screenings at the Talbot Building on the Medical campus October 8.
Dan Aguirre/Boston University Photography

Two Boston University students skipped their lunch date last fall after reading an email blast that encouraged students to attend a “depression screening” on campus. The boy didn’t want to go, but his girlfriend encouraged him, promising that she would come with him.

There the boy learned that he showed symptoms “highly consistent with depression,” the girl told Dori Hutchinson, director of BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation. His girlfriend said they came because she was worried about his mental state and didn’t know what else to do.

BU is one of more than 1,000 colleges, hospitals and community organizations that will conduct screenings October 8 as part of National Depression Screening Day, which turned 25 this year. The event aims to raise awareness for mental health, screen people for common disorders—namely depression—and offer immediate support for people contemplating suicide.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In the past 25 years, millions of people have been screened. But the event started small, at Quincy Hospital, where 200 people answered questions about their mental well-being.

The event was founded by Douglas Jacobs, a Harvard psychiatrist. He had the idea to start National Depression Screening Day after he saw medical colleagues start conducting exams for physical illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and breast cancer. There’s no blood test or x-ray that can tell someone they have depression, but his evaluation does promote awareness of the signs of depression.

In the 1990s, the National Institutes of Mental Health said depression was both underdiagnosed and under treated. Jacobs wanted the screening to promote the idea that depression is something that can be identified and treated. He wanted people to know that there are options, and there’s no shame in getting what he called a “check up from the neck up.”

The screening is an anonymous quick series of questions developed by Jacobs and his colleagues that takes just a few minutes. Users respond to questions about their energy levels, how often they blame themselves for things going wrong, whether they’ve had a change in their appetites and whether they feel hopeful about the future. They’ll then be told how many of their answers are consistent with responses of someone who is depressed.

If the correlation is high, they’ll be told to contact a health professional. No one who takes part in a screening will be given an official diagnosis or prescribed medication.

“If you get a public screening for hypertension, they’re not going to tell you that you have hypertension right then and there,” Jacobs said. “They’re going to tell you your blood pressure is elevated and suggest you get a follow up with a professional. The same principle applies here.”

If someone answers a question that shows they're in immediate danger of suicide, they’ll be referred to a crisis counselor on hand. Or, if they answer online, will be told to visit an emergency room or call 911 or a suicide prevention hotline.

Even if people who come to get screened already know they’re depressed, Jacobs said the screenings need to exist to help people identify the signs and symptoms they’ve been feeling and get the treatment they need.

“People felt there was a need for the screenings when we started,” he said. “But the other important part is that we’re saying depression is an illness not a weakness. And that’s the message about mental health we’ve been trying to get across for the past 25 years.”

Jacobs said the stigma against mental illness has faded in the past 25 years, citing statistics that show half of people with depression receive treatment. When he first started, the number was much lower, at only about a third. But he and Hutchinson both agreed that a stigma still exists.

“We bring the screening in public to show that asking for help is a strength,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone struggles. It’s part of the human condition. We just want to help people have a productive struggle.”

If you can’t make it to an in-person screening, you can take an online depression screening here.