National Depression Screening Day

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Get evaluated today (October 11). It's free, anonymous, and takes less than ten minutes.

sadlion615.jpgRich Anderson/Flickr

Over 1,000 sites nationwide will offer free mental health evaluations to the public today for National Depression Screening Day. This may be an obvious point, but I'll make it anyway: there's no actual urine test or blood lab that can tell you whether or not you have depression. Another straightforward observation: Unlike, say, some STIs, depression is usually symptomatic. You're not going to waltz into a clinic, feeling like roses, and be told you're actually depressed.

Right?

Humor me for a minute longer. Like all mental disorders, a diagnosis of clinical depression is to some extent subjective. So a screening can't give you a positive or negative result. But it can promote awareness of the actual signs and symptoms of depression, explains Dr. Douglas Jacobs, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of National Depression Screening Day. 

In the early 1990s, when Jacobs first designed the screening program, the National Institutes of Mental Health had identified depression as a widespread but under-diagnosed disorder. "I had this idea that psychiatry should do what our medical colleagues do, to apply principles of health screening to a mental disorder," said Jacobs.

This public health approach plays into the idea that the mental health community is always trying to drive home: that depression is a disease, and a treatable one at that. Saying that it's something you can be screened for may come off as a bit fatuous, but it's one more way of lessening depression's stigma. 

The screening emphasizes awareness of the signs and symptoms of depression. After conducting a brief interview, a clinician will typically sit and review your "results," discuss your personal story, and then tell you whether or not your symptoms are consistent with someone who has depression. They won't be handing out therapy sessions or doses of ketamine on site -- just information that you can then bring to your primary care physician or recommendations for a mental health professional who can provide you with a more in-depth evaluation and appropriate treatment.

Screening can also help people to distinguish typical sadness from a mental health problem. Public awareness has a tendency to over-correct: every time I spot a new freckle, for example, I'm convinced I have skin cancer. And what if they tell you that you're not depressed, but you're convinced that your dark moods are not normal? Dr. Jacobs assured me that the screenings don't function as traditional gatekeepers -- if you suspect that you might be depressed or have any mental health issue, the centers can and will connect you with the appropriate resources. 

If you or someone you know is showing signs of depression, why not get screened? You can find local sites at Help Yourself Help Others. It's free, anonymous, and takes less than ten minutes. And yes, the same goes for an online self-evaluation, but going in person allows clinicians to look for visual signs of depression and to put more context into their preliminary diagnosis. 

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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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