Free depression tests offered

Anonymous screenings are held to reduce fear of the disease and its stigma.
Thursday, October 9, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:27 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Drugs that combat depression are among the most commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals in the United States. But the stigma of mental illness is still more frightening to many sufferers of depression than the disease itself.

Since 1990, Screening for Mental Health, Inc., a nonprofit organization, has been trying to overcome that fear with a National Depression Screening Day. Today, therapists from the Family Health Centers will be at the Columbia Public Library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Truman Veterans Hospital from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. offering free, anonymous screenings for depression and other mental disorders.

The screening consists of a short questionnaire that rates the frequency of common symptoms of depression, such as insomnia and an inability to concentrate. Completing the questionnaire will take about 10 minutes, after which respondents can consult with a therapist and, if necessary, embark on a course of treatment that could include medication or psychotherapy.

“The (screening) is designed to pick up those who may be reluctant to seek treatment on their own,” said Peter Holmes, a psychologist at Family Counseling Center. “It is also an effort to make people more aware and accepting of depression.”

While programs and publicity campaigns such as National Depression Screening Day have helped change the public perception of depression, the explosion of new anti-depression medications in the past 15 years has had a significant role as well. In 2001, doctors wrote 111 million prescriptions for anti-depressants, according to the national Centers for Disease Control, and such drugs are now being used to treat other mental problems, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet, more than 15 years after Prozac was approved as the first of the so-called “new generation” of anti-depressants, the debate over their safety continues. For example, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is facing a handful of lawsuits that claim its best-selling anti-depressant, Paxil, is three times more likely to lead to suicide in children and adolescents than a placebo. Studies have shown the drug can elicit suicidal thoughts when users stop taking it suddenly.

Meanwhile, GlaxoSmithKline is seeking FDA approval for the use of Paxil to treat children with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

GlaxoSmtihKline is also among a dozen large drug companies that help fund the Screening for Mental Health, Inc., whose mission is to erase the stigma of depression by directing people to treatment.

“The drug companies only provide educational grants,” said Katherine Cruise, communications manager for Screening for Mental Health, Inc. “We are not here at all to endorse any drugs.”

Although drugs like Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac are prescribed more than any other for children and adolescents in the United States, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, today’s screenings are open only to adults.

“It appears that parents are no more likely to bring their children to a screening than to take them to counseling,” Holmes said.

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