Doctors Think Teenagers Should Be Screened Annually for Depression

Teen girl
Photo: 145/Peter Glass/Corbis

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that kids and young adults ages 11 to 21 be screened annually for depression, a nod to the notion that, yes, mental health is an integral part of a kid’s overall well-being. 

The recommendation comes after a series of sobering studies on mental health and young people. In 2013, for example, suicide was the leading cause of death after “unintentional injury” (accidents, in other words) for those ages 15 to 34. The reasons for the increase aren’t clear, though some recently have pointed to increasing amounts of parental and societal pressure to do well in school. Regardless, in 2013, the American Psychological Association conducted a survey that found one in three young adults reported symptoms of depression, an illness that can of course lead to suicidal thoughts.

So doctors are hoping that the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” way of thinking will play out in this instance. But there’s a catch. Methods of screening for childhood depression — which often consist of interviews with kids and their parents along with the use of tempered-down adult depression tests — have faced criticism for being inaccurate, often misdiagnosing what turns out to be anxiety. The AAP has released its mental-health screening suggestions with a variety of options for young adults, but critics argue that false positives — that is, people diagnosed as depressed when they are actually not — is a real, potentially dangerous issue.  

The AAP has attempted to create screening guidelines and a step-by-step evaluation method to separate cases of depression among this age group from other mental-health issues that might be affecting the patient to combat this criticism. But the troubling part for many observers and critics isn’t just the messiness of screening and figuring out if a kid is clinically depressed or having a different mental-health issue. It’s also the antidepressants, which bring some potentially deadly side effects. (Though, on the other hand, when the FDA warned people of this side effect, researchers found that teenage suicide rates actually spiked when antidepressant use was curbed.)

The complicated conclusion is this: While the AAP recognizes there is a troubling pattern of suicide among teenagers and young adults, there isn’t a surefire way to diagnose depression. Still, this is a first step toward recognizing the important role of mental health in the overall health of an individual. As the AAP notes in a press release, “Feelings need checkups, too.”

Pediatricians Recommending Depression Tests