CHICAGO — An influential government-appointed medical panel is urging doctors to routinely screen all American teens for depression — a bold step that acknowledges that nearly 2 million teens are affected by this debilitating condition.
Most are undiagnosed and untreated, said the panel, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which sets guidelines for doctors on a host of health issues.
The task force recommendations appear in April's issue of the journal Pediatrics. They go farther than the American Academy of Pediatrics' own guidance for teen depression screening.
An estimated 6 percent of U.S. teenagers are clinically depressed. Evidence shows that detailed but simple questionnaires can accurately diagnose depression in primary-care settings such as a pediatrician's office.
The task force said that when followed by treatment, including psychotherapy, screening can help improve symptoms and help kids cope. Because depression can lead to persistent sadness, social isolation, school problems and suicide, screening to treat it early is crucial, the panel said.
Because depression is so common, "you will miss a lot if you only screen high-risk groups," said Dr. Ned Calonge, task force chairman and chief medical officer for Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment.
The group recommends research-tested screening tests even for kids without symptoms. It cited two questionnaires that focus on depression tip-offs, such as mood, anxiety, appetite and substance abuse.
Calonge stressed that the panel does not want its advice to lead to drug treatment alone, particularly antidepressants that have been linked with increased risks for suicidal thoughts. Routine depression testing should occur only if psychotherapy is also readily available, the panel said. Calonge said screening once yearly likely would be enough.
The recommendations come at a pivotal time for treatment of depression and other mental health problems in children.
Recently passed federal mental health equity legislation mandates equal coverage for mental and physical ailments in insurance plans offering both. The law is expected to prompt many more adults and children to seek mental health care.