Depression Screening

Depression or Major Depressive Disorder is a serious and common medical condition that causes extreme sadness and a loss of pleasure in enjoyable activities. It leads to many physical and emotional challenges and decreases the ability to function normally at home or at work.

Studies show that depression affects about eight percent of people in the United States and accounts for more than 210 billion dollars in health care costs. The American Academy of Family Physicians and the US Preventive Services Task Force have recommended screening for depression in adults.

Untreated depression may lead to reduced productivity, emotional suffering, disrupted relationships, wage loss, and serious chronic health conditions. Early identification and intervention are necessary to treat depression and lead a mentally and physically sound lifestyle.

What is Depression Screening?

Also known as a depression test, a depression screening is a standard set of questions asked by the healthcare provider to determine whether the patient has depression. Although physical tests are imperative to confirm the presence of depression, by asking certain questions, a healthcare professional can learn about other things that may be relevant in reaching a diagnosis.

Clinical depression may show up in different forms, making it difficult to diagnose. In some cases, individuals may withdraw into a state of sadness, and others may become irritated or agitated. While some may begin to eat or sleep less, others may experience increased levels of hunger or fatigue.

Screening is a useful procedure to identify depression symptoms in their early stages and make recovery faster. Other than helping in depression diagnosis, screening is also useful in finding out about the severity of depression and determining its type.

After depression screening, the patient should undergo a proper clinical interview to diagnose depression. The screening procedures must have adequate systems in place for accurate diagnosis, correct treatment, and effective follow-up.

Depression Screening Tools

Contrary to what they may sound like, depression screening tools are self-report surveys used to screen individuals for the presence of depressive symptoms. They are tools that help mental health professionals determine the probability and intensity of depression.

There are various types of depression screening tools used in diagnosing depression. The Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) and Patient Help Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9) are the most commonly used tools.

Hamilton Depression Rating Scale

The Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) is a tool widely used by clinicians and researchers to assess the severity of depression in individuals. Developed by Max Hamilton in 1960, the HDRS has become one of the most commonly used rating scales for depression.

The HDRS consists of 17 items that measure various symptoms of depression, such as depressed mood, guilt feelings, insomnia, agitation, anxiety, and loss of weight. Each item is rated on a scale from 0 to 4, with higher scores indicating greater severity of symptoms. The total score on the HDRS ranges from 0 to 52, with scores above 20 generally indicating moderate to severe depression.

One of the strengths of HDRS is its ability to provide a standardized measure of depressive symptoms. By using a structured assessment tool, clinicians and researchers can ensure that they are consistently evaluating the same symptoms. This allows for more accurate and reliable comparisons between different individuals or groups.

The HDRS also provides a detailed assessment of various symptoms of depression, allowing clinicians to identify specific areas of distress. This can help tailor treatment plans and monitor progress over time. For example, if an individual scores high on items related to insomnia and loss of appetite, a clinician may focus on addressing these specific symptoms through medication or therapy.

In addition, the HDRS is a versatile tool that can be used in a variety of settings. It has been validated for use with both psychiatric and non-psychiatric populations, making it useful for assessing depression in diverse clinical and research contexts. It can also be easily administered by trained professionals, making it a practical tool for routine clinical practice.

However, like any assessment tool, the HDRS has its limitations. It is primarily a clinician-administered tool, meaning that it requires a trained professional to administer and score the scale. This can limit its use in settings where formal training may be lacking. The HDRS primarily focuses on the severity of depressive symptoms and may not capture the full complexity of an individual’s experience of depression.

Patient Health Questionnaire 9

The PHQ-9 is a widely used screening tool that consists of a questionnaire asking individuals to rate the frequency of nine different depressive symptoms over the past two weeks.

Each symptom is rated on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 representing “not at all” and 3 representing “nearly every day.” The scores for each item are then summed, providing a total score ranging from 0 to 27.

The PHQ-9 is based on the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is a widely accepted standard for mental health diagnosis. The cutoff score for diagnosing depression is typically set at 10 or higher, with higher scores indicating more severe symptoms.

One of the key advantages of the PHQ-9 is its brevity and ease of administration. It can be quickly completed by patients in a variety of settings, such as primary care clinics, mental health facilities, or even through self-administration.

The PHQ-9 has shown good reliability and validity for identifying depression in diverse populations, including adults, adolescents, older adults, and individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Numerous studies have demonstrated its ability to accurately identify major depressive disorder and its sensitivity to changes in depressive symptoms over time.

In addition to its diagnostic utility, the PHQ-9 can also be used to monitor treatment progress. By administering the questionnaire at regular intervals, healthcare providers can assess the effectiveness of interventions and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan. This can be particularly helpful in guiding shared decision-making between healthcare providers and patients, as well as facilitating appropriate referrals to mental health specialists when needed.

However, PHQ-9 is a subjective self-report measure and is not a substitute for a comprehensive clinical assessment.

Why Screen for Depression?

It is important to screen for depression for several reasons. Firstly, screening helps identify individuals who may be experiencing symptoms of depression at an early stage. This allows for timely intervention and treatment, preventing the condition from worsening or becoming chronic. Moreover, early intervention and prompt treatment can help alleviate symptoms, reduce the risk of self-harm or suicide, and improve the overall quality of life.

Depression often coexists with other mental health disorders, such as anxiety, substance abuse, or eating disorders. Screenings can help identify these comorbid conditions, enabling healthcare providers to develop comprehensive treatment plans. It also helps in identifying specific symptoms and personal circumstances to tailor treatment plans to the individual’s needs, maximizing the likelihood of successful outcomes.

By proactively screening for depression, it helps to normalize discussions and conversations about mental health. It encourages individuals to seek help without feeling ashamed or stigmatized, fostering a more open and supportive environment.

Considering that depression has a significant societal impact, it may lead to disability, decreased productivity, and increased healthcare costs. Screening helps in understanding the prevalence, risk factors, and patterns of depression within populations, ultimately aiding in the development of effective public health strategies and policies.

DSM Criteria for Depression

The diagnostic criteria for depression are outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is commonly used by mental health professionals. To receive a diagnosis of depression, a person must exhibit symptoms that significantly affect their daily life for a minimum duration of two weeks. Here are the key diagnostic criteria:

  • Depressed mood: The person experiences a persistent feeling of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness.
  • Diminished interest or pleasure: A notable decrease in the enjoyment or interest in previously enjoyable activities.
  • Significant weight loss or gain: A change in appetite resulting in a significant weight loss or weight gain.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia: Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) or excessive sleeping (hypersomnia) nearly every day.
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation: Observable restlessness or sluggishness in movement.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy: Feelings of extreme tiredness or lack of energy, even without physical exertion.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt: Persistent feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt.
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate: Difficulty in thinking, making decisions, or concentrating. 
  • Recurrent thoughts of death: Frequent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt.

To meet the criteria for a depressive disorder, an individual must experience a minimum of five of these symptoms, including either depressed mood or loss of interest/pleasure, for most of the day, nearly every day, over the same two-week period. The symptoms should also cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. It is important to consult a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis.

Different Types of Depression

There are several different types of depression, each characterized by distinct symptoms and durations. Some of the most common types include:

Major depressive disorder

This is the most common and severe form of depression. It involves experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities. Symptoms must be present for at least two weeks to diagnose MDD.

Persistent depressive disorder

This type of depression, also known as dysthymia, is a chronic but less severe form. Symptoms last for at least two years, but they may be less severe than those of major depressive disorder.

Bipolar disorder

This condition is characterized by alternating periods of depression and mania or hypomania. During depressive episodes, individuals may experience the same symptoms as those with MDD. However, they also have periods of elevated mood, increased energy, and impulsive behavior during manic or hypomanic episodes.

Seasonal affective disorder

This specific type of depression is related to seasonal changes, most commonly occurring during the fall and winter when daylight hours decrease. SAD often leads to symptoms such as low mood, fatigue, and increased sleep.

Postpartum depression

This type of depression affects women after giving birth. Hormonal and emotional changes can contribute to intense feelings of sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion. PPD can significantly impact the mother’s ability to care for herself and her baby.

Psychotic depression

In addition to the symptoms of MDD, individuals with psychotic depression experience hallucinations, delusions, or other psychotic symptoms. These may involve false beliefs or hearing or seeing things that are not real.

Depression is a complex and multifaceted psychiatric condition, and not all cases fit neatly into specific categories. Individuals may also experience a mix of symptoms from different types of depression. A professional diagnosis from a qualified healthcare provider is necessary to determine the specific type and appropriate treatment for each person.

What is the difference between Depression Screening and Diagnosis?

Depression screening and depression diagnosis are two different aspects of assessing and identifying depression in individuals. Depression screening involves a preliminary assessment or evaluation of an individual’s symptoms and risk factors related to depression.

Screening tools, such as questionnaires or self-report scales, are commonly used for this purpose. The focus of screening is to identify individuals who may be at risk of having depression or who exhibit symptoms that warrant further evaluation.

On the other hand, depression diagnosis involves a comprehensive evaluation conducted by a healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or a psychologist, to determine if a person meets the criteria for a diagnosis of depression according to standardized diagnostic criteria, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

The diagnostic process involves a thorough assessment of symptoms, duration, intensity, and functional impairment, and may also consider the individual’s personal and medical history.

Who should undergo depression screening?

Depression screening can be beneficial for individuals who demonstrate symptoms of depression or are at an increased risk of developing the condition. The following groups of people should consider undergoing depression screening:

  • Individuals experiencing persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and emptiness.
  • People who have recently experienced a significant life event or loss, such as the death of a loved one, a break-up, or job loss.
  • Those with a family history of depression or other mental health disorders.
  • Individuals with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, as these conditions can increase the risk of developing depression.
  • Pregnant women and new mothers, as they are vulnerable to postpartum depression.
  • Individuals with a history of substance abuse or addiction.
    Those who have attempted suicide or have had suicidal thoughts.
  • Children and adolescents who demonstrate signs of depression, such as persistent irritability, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, or declining academic performance.
  • People who are experiencing significant changes in behavior, such as social withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, or changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
  • Individuals who may not have obvious external signs of depression but suspect they may be experiencing symptoms internally.

What is the next step after depression screening?

The next step after a depression screening would typically depend on the results. Here are a few common scenarios and their subsequent steps:

  • Negative screening: If the screening indicates no significant signs of depression, the individual may not require further action. However, it’s essential to maintain open communication and monitor their well-being regularly.
  • Positive screening: If the screening suggests potential depression symptoms, further assessment is necessary. This typically involves a detailed diagnostic evaluation conducted by a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. This evaluation may include a comprehensive clinical interview, additional assessments, and a review of the individual’s medical history.
  • Mild-to-moderate depression: If the individual is diagnosed with mild-to-moderate depression, various treatment options can be considered. These may include psychotherapy (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy) or medication (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Self-help strategies, lifestyle changes, and support networks can also be beneficial.
  • Severe depression: In cases of severe depression or when there’s a risk of harm to oneself or others, immediate intervention is crucial. Hospitalization and close monitoring may be necessary to ensure the individual’s safety. Intensive treatment, involving medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of approaches, is typically employed.

It is important to note that the specific steps may vary depending on the mental health services available in different locations and individual circumstances. Seeking professional help is crucial to determine the best course of action based on the screening results.

What are the benefits of choosing an Online Psychiatrist for Depression?

  • Online psychiatry allows individuals to seek help from the comfort of their own homes or any location of their choice. This eliminates the need for commuting and waiting in a physical waiting room and allows for more flexible scheduling options.
  • It can be especially beneficial for individuals with limited mobility or those living in remote areas with limited access to mental health professionals.
  • Additionally, some individuals may feel more comfortable discussing personal and sensitive topics with a psychiatrist in the privacy of their own space. Online sessions can provide a greater sense of confidentiality and anonymity.
  • At Gaba Telepsychiatry, an individual can choose the psychiatrist of their choice. Our services are available seven days a week, including weekend appointments suitable for people with other important commitments.

To learn more about our services and seek help for depression, visit


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