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Depression screenings faulty

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The Minnesota daily
By Brian Hokanson
January 25, 2006


Any combination of answers resulted in recommendations to see a doctor.


At the beginning of fall semester I noticed fliers in my residence hall encouraging students to take the free depression screening test at depression-screening.org.

Having a vague hunch as to what might follow, I visited the Web site. The first section of the test consists of a list of negative behaviors such as "feeling bad about yourself" and "feeling tired or having little energy." The test-taker chooses how often the statements have applied to him or her in the past two weeks, from "not at all" to "nearly every day."

The second part asks you to rate how difficult the behaviors have made it to function in daily life, from "not difficult at all" to "extremely difficult."

I decided to test the test. I chose "not at all" for every behavior on the list except "poor appetite or overeating," for which I chose the next option, "several days." Then, I indicated that my problems made it "not difficult at all" for me to function.

The result? "Your screening results are consistent with minimal depression … You are advised to see your doctor or a mental health professional for a complete evaluation as soon as possible."

Just because of my poor appetite? Couldn't I just stop eating at University Dining Services or something?

After fiddling with the test some more, I realized that virtually any combination of answers resulted in the advice that I see a doctor as soon as possible. Obviously, this is a flawed test; we all have small problems, but this alone does not indicate an urgent need for professional help. I e-mailed the National Mental Health Association, which sponsors the Web site, explaining the results of my experiment and requesting that they either remove or alter the test.

More than a month later, I received a reply explaining that the National Mental Health Association's public education department was examining whether to continue using the test. "It is certainly not our intention to convince everyone that they have a mental health problem," the reply said.

Yet today, the test is still online in its original form. Why? The fine print at the bottom of the page may provide an answer: "Copyright 1999 Pfizer, Inc." Yes, not only is the test six years old - an eternity when it comes to our knowledge of mental health issues - but it was created by a company that directly benefits every time another American is medicated.

I relate this story as an addendum to the Daily's Dec. 6 article about suicide prevention ("U offers resources to prevent suicide and help others do the same") and Dec. 7 article about Seasonal Affective Disorder ("People SAD to see less sunlight"). These articles were beneficial in that they helped to raise awareness that issues of mental health are especially important this time of year. However, neither provided much insight beyond what can be found in a cheesy counseling office brochure.

All communities, especially in the University, ought to look at creating a new model of mental health awareness and assistance. The model is centered on the doctor's office; this place is the number one target of pharmaceutical companies and the drugs they concoct (just look for the logos the next time you visit). A more effective model would be community-based, with less intimidating ways of receiving help from both professionals and peers and an emphasis on all methods of treatment, especially nonmedicinal methods.

Additionally, we must remember medications such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and others are not magic pills that automatically make "bad" feelings go away, and in fact, many people are opposed to taking these mind-altering drugs. It's not because they think the drugs are guaranteed not to work, nor because they're anti-science fundamentalist crazies. Rather, they believe the mind is too sacred to alter on a distant pharmaceutical company's whim, even if that mind doesn't always conform to society's norms.

I hold this viewpoint. However, I don't believe for an instant that anyone who does use such medication is somehow immoral or inferior, and I don't believe for an instant that we should ignore issues of mental health. Conversely, I believe we need to up the discussion about mental health beyond its current elementary level.

That's why I'm writing this commentary. What aspects of the culture of the University might be contributing to poor mental health? How can we serve the mental health needs of this community in more accessible, more responsible, more creative ways? And how can we do it with students in the lead?

Answering these questions will greatly enhance this University not just in the dark winter months, but year-round. We must answer them; simply avoiding UDS, although perhaps wise, will not be enough.

Brian Hokanson is a University student and author of Knowledge at bjhokanson.blogspot.com/ please send comments to letters@mndaily.com.



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