US Task Force: Screen teens for depression

DepressionThe U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reviewed studies of depression in teens in a study published in the April issue of Pediatrics. Although the researchers acknowledged that the data are limited, they concluded that screening methods can be an effective method of identifying teen depression and that there are treatments that can address the symptoms. The Task Force suggested that teens should be routinely screened for depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms are surprisingly common in teens. In 1993, Drs. Ian Manion and Simon Davidson conducted the Canadian Youth Mental Health and Illness Survey. They found that youth were at high risk for mental health problems, and that they were unlikely to talk to professionals about their difficulties. Hopefully, the relationship between teens and their family doctor would allow for some honest responses to screening measures.

U.S. News & World Report spoke to the chair of the Task Force, Ned Calonge, who said that the suggestion for screening comes with an important limitation - it shouldn't be done unless treatment is available. There is research evidence suggesting that treating teens with antidepressants also increases the risk of suicidal thoughts. Physicians who screen for depressive symptoms at an annual checkup therefore shouldn't simply prescribe medication unless close monitoring has been arranged. So what can teens and their parents do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Teens need to talk. The Canadian Youth Mental Health and Illness Survey suggested that youth were more likely to talk to their friends about mental health concerns than their parents. However, there are some things that parents can do to open communication. We've talked several times on the Family Anatomy show about "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk" - well, there's a teen version of the book as well. It's about giving kids space to tell you about their feelings and helping them to feel understood. In other words, give them a chance to talk, listen to them, and validate their feelings. In some Canadian cities, Youth Net (a youth mental health awareness and promotion agency) publishes a list of "youth-friendly" mental health services that have been endorsed by teens.
  2. Parents should keep their eyes open. When teens experience significant mental health problems, they're often associated with changes in behaviour. You might notice that they're sleeping more or less, eating more or less, withdrawing from friends, or giving up on activities that they used to enjoy. These are signs that something might be wrong, and they might indicate that it's time to look for help.
  3. If your child won't talk, you still can. Family therapists believe that, when one family member changes their behaviour, it can have ripple effects throughout the family system. If you think your child might be having trouble and they're unwilling to talk, your family doctor might be able to suggest a therapist who can help indirectly. A major part of family therapy is about helping parents and children to communicate with one another. If your teen's unwilling to participate in therapy, they still might benefit from your participation. The therapist could talk to you about how to react to your teen's behaviour, for example. As Dennis Crawford said in his interview on Family Anatomy, you might need to try more than one therapist before finding a good match.

You can read the Preventive Task Force study here, and the U.S. News & World Report article here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for information only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.