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Jan 26 2011

Preventing Depression

I love it when people who actually know what they’re talking about confirm something I’ve believed for ages.

In this case, a study at the Feinberg School of Medicine (that’s Northwestern’s med school) showed that one out of every four or five college students who come to their school’s health center may be suffering from depression. The study also recommended that colleges should start screening students for depression. This way, they might even be able to pinpoint students with minor depression and help them get treatment before their depression worsens.

Ever since I’ve started seriously reading about psychology and depression, I’ve felt that we should start taking a preventative approach to it–not just in colleges, but everywhere. Depression tends to worsen with time, and even when it does remit on its own, it usually comes back later, with more intensity. Furthermore, distorted thinking patterns seem to precede the development of a full-blown depressive episode, so why not address those earlier rather than later?

For instance, parents take their kids to the doctor to make sure that they’re growing at a normal rate and developing the cognitive abilities they’re supposed to develop–why not also check to make sure that kids aren’t developing negative and maladaptive thinking patterns that could increase their risk for becoming depressed later?

You might think that kids are too young to show definitive patterns, but I think that’s false. My own little brother, who’s eight years old, constantly complains that he’s fat and needs to exercise, despite being underweight for his age. He also says that everyone at school hates him (they don’t) and that his school is awful and should be burned to the ground (and various other sentiments that have gotten him sent to the principal’s office before). Perhaps most importantly, he also has a pervasive family history of depression.

The unfortunate truth is that society views mental illnesses as fundamentally different from physical illnesses. One is a straightforward matter–you go to a doctor for checkups, and if something is wrong, you receive treatment. The other is for some reason shrouded in mystery, and people generally don’t go seek help for it until they’re already barely functioning.

As recent scientific developments are beginning to show, however, it may be that all mental illnesses actually have a physical basis. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists (notably, Peter D. Kramer of Listening to Prozac fame) are starting to take this view. If they’re right, it follows that we should try to take a preventative approach in treating mental illness, not a palliative one.

However, many people still have negative attitudes about the idea of psychological screening. One of the students quoted in the article linked to above said that these screenings are a bad idea because someone could just “be having a bad day” and–oh, the horrors–get recommended for counseling. First of all, however, counseling isn’t exactly the same as taking antibiotics or getting a spinal tab. Second, that just means that we need to develop better depression screening tools, not that we shouldn’t screen for it at all.

In college especially, conditions like depression can take a turn for the worse rather quickly, as evidenced by the several suicides we’ve had on campus while I’ve been a student here. Every time a tragedy like that occurs, friends and family are often quoted as saying that they “never saw it coming.” Maybe a professional psychologist would’ve.

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