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White Coat Notes

Using e-mail to screen college students for depression

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May 31, 2010

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Screening college students for depression with an e-mailed questionnaire may be a promising way to track levels of mental health on campus. But connecting students with help looks more challenging, according to new research that also found depression rates higher among college students than in the general population. Irene Shyu and a team from Massachusetts General Hospital distributed a depression questionnaire at four unidentified colleges in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California, using e-mail lists provided by student groups. A total of 631 students agreed to take the survey for a chance to win a $200 gift card.

Fifty-four students said they were taking medications, receiving therapy, or both. In all, 82, or 14.5 percent of the students responding, scored high enough to fit the criteria for major depressive disorder. The prevalence of major depression among US adults ranges from 6.6 percent to 10.3 percent in a year, Shyu said, citing previous research.

The 82 students who screened positive for depression were given online links to information on depression as well as resources for finding local treatment.

“E-mail appears to be a feasible and inexpensive way to screen college students for depression,’’ Shyu said in a conference call with reporters after presenting her team’s results at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans. Findings made public in meetings such as these are considered preliminary because they have not been peer-reviewed as they would be for publication in academic journals. “In the future, we should look to see how we can reach out to these depressed college students with other resources that may be tailored more to the college student population.’’

Christopher Overtree, director of psychological services at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said having a snapshot of student mental health is helpful. He was not involved in the Mass. General study. “The number of students who come to college with mental health conditions is dramatically increasing, and the level of severity that some of those students experience is a lot worse than it has been previously. In part that’s because quality treatment has been made available to students to enable them to achieve in ways they haven’t in the past,’’ he said in an interview.

ELIZABETH COONEY

Odor concern can be disabling, study finds

For some people, worrying about bad breath or body odor can be so extreme they become housebound or suicidal, a Brown University researcher reported this week. Even though others can’t detect any smell, the preoccupation persisted among the 20 people whose cases Dr. Katharine A. Phillips described at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans.

“Patients suffer tremendously as a result of this false belief and they appear to be very impaired,’’ she said.

Three-quarters of the people, whose average age was 33, thought foul odors came from their mouths, followed by armpits, genitals, and sweat. Some showered for hours a day, changed clothes repeatedly, chewed gum, or ate mints to deal with their perceptions.

The condition, called olfactory reference syndrome, deserves more research, including studies that would estimate its prevalence, Phillips concluded. E.C.

Should parents worry about 3-D?

If you missed the 3-D movie “Avatar’’ in theaters, don’t worry. New TVs are coming equipped with 3-D mode, and video games are ramping up graphics to take advantage of 3-D’s startling visual effects. But a national eye doctors’ group is concerned about problems behind those funny glasses.

“We think it’s important for parents to understand why 3-D causes visual discomfort, motion sickness, or headaches for some,’’ said Christina Curas, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

The chief of ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital Boston agrees that these symptoms could arise, but there is no medical evidence of more serious problems. “We see in 3-D all the time,’’ said Dr. David G. Hunter, who is also vice chair of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School.

“Many parents ask about video games and TV and what does it do to children’s eyes,’’ he said. “I disappoint them by saying it probably doesn’t do anything to their eyes, but the question is, what does it do to their brain?’’ E.C.