I Got Screened for Depression

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Checking out the "celebration" that is National Depression Screening Day

depressionday2615.jpgThe Community Counseling Services Center at George Washington University, one of more than 1,000 screening sites

"There are no balloons to mark the occasion of National Depression Screening Day."

As I walk from The Atlantic's D.C. offices to the address provided to me by Dr. Monica Megivern of George Washington University, I think to myself that this could be a great first line for my first-person piece about taking part in the nationwide campaign where over 1,000 sites are offering free screening for depression.

The problem is, there are balloons. Blue and yellow ones, because although GW's real colors are blue and buff, the latter color is hard to come by, Megivern explains. So yellow will have to do.

There's also chocolate, purchased in bulk from Costco, of the type that will later this month be given out to trick-or-treaters and which is currently being used to anchor piles of brochures and informational packets about mood disorders. An unopened box of tissues serves the same function.

Balloons, chocolate, a crisp fall morning. As someone who stops to get evaluated points out, it's enough to skew the results.

The other problem with this whole first-person take on getting screened for depression, I quickly realize, is that even before I got an endorphin boost from a fun-sized bag of Peanut M&Ms, I wasn't likely to "test positive" for depression. As I sit on a bench to fill out the form I've been handed, the most I can honestly admit to is feeling low in energy and having difficulty making decisions "some of the time." Same goes for the questions intended to screen for mood and generalized anxiety disorders. I don't even bother to answer the questions about post-traumatic stress disorder. If anything, I can say that the survey makes me feel better about the fact that I don't seem to have anything to worry about, but even that's a stretch.

Christina, the second year intern in the department of counseling who stands aside with me to go over my results, doesn't give me anything more to work with. I try to prompt her: "Well, I do have a family history of depression. A prominent one." She assures me that this isn't something to be overly concerned about, as I myself am not experiencing any symptoms.

I give it one more attempt: "Also, I just moved to D.C. It's my first time living on my own, and it's hard being so far away from my family. The ones who -- as I mentioned -- may have passed their depression on to me. So how do I know if my bad moods are just because of all this stuff I'm dealing with, or if maybe I need more help?"

"I think counseling can be a great idea, even if you're feeling really happy and don't have any symptoms," Christina offers.

But I get the hint. I'm not the target audience here.

Meanwhile, Megivern and her assistants are earnestly appealing to everyone who walks past their table, asking, "Would you like to take a survey about your mood?" Or, a bit more desperately, "Would you like some candy?" They have the unmistakable zeal of missionaries, trying to draw people in to conversation or at least get them to take some reading material.

Over and over, they got the response that most people who set up tables in public places tend to receive: "Sorry, I'm busy." Or, if they're lucky, "Maybe later."

One girl who walks by without stopping remarks to her friend, "I don't think I'm, like, sad."

Some people, who appear mostly to be students, do get drawn in, though. And some of them don't even want candy, but sit for five minutes and take the survey anyway.

Later in the day, the counselors are expecting to see more members of the general community, many of whom were referred to the site by their primary care physicians, Megivern explains to me as a strong breeze passed by, causing the balloons to accost a woman who has sat down to fill out the evaluation.

This is Megivern's tenth year running Screening Day, and she keeps at it because she has seen that it really can help people. Once, she tells me, they intercepted a college freshman who had stopped seeing his therapist after moving away from home, and who admitted to having spent the previous night crying in his closet. With this permission, she called his therapist and convinced him to get in touch with his parents, who came down to check up on him the very next weekend.

Another time, a woman in Maryland saw an announcement for the event in the paper and drove her elderly mother, who was visiting from Florida, over to G.W. to get evaluated. Her high score indicated that the grief she was experiencing six months after her husband's death had become worse, and that she was in need of professional support. She was flying home that afternoon, but they were able to connect her with resources in Orlando.

"Many times, you feel like, wow," said Megivern, "If we weren't here today, what would have happened to this person?"

It makes me wonder, what happens to people like this the other 364 days of the year? Have we gotten to the point yet where most people are aware of depression's prevalence and know when and where to seek help? It's yet another reason why I'm not the right person to be here today: for me, recognizing the signs of depression are almost second-nature. My speech encouraging people to seek treatment is well-rehearsed. That family history isn't good for nothing.

Megivern reminds me that people with low-level depression, called dysthymia, can go their entire lives without ever realizing that they could be feeling better. I picture those people, who are out there entirely on their own, and for the first time today I do feel a bit depressed.

Anyone who stops by and wants the counseling center to follow-up with them can fill out a card with their personal information and drop it into a box. They offer therapy to the public at $28 per session -- $10 for students -- and also have a list of clinics for people who would prefer to go through their insurance.

But Megivern echoes what Douglas Jacobs, the founder of National Depression Screening Day, told me yesterday: that the real goal of the event is to both promote awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Even the people who score low can at least go out and educate the people whose paths didn't take them past the balloons.

While it continues to be the official day for it, I encourage everyone to check out their local site, which can be found at Help Yourself Help Others. (Or get screened by your doctor any time of the year.) There's a chance that, like me, all you'll end up getting out of it is a piece of candy. But as first steps go, it's not a bad one.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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