For a student, it’s in some ways the ideal test: no studying needed; no correct answers; not even a name required. The results, however, could have serious implications for the 1,100 Holliston High School students who recently took a depression screening survey.
Organizers hope the questionnaire will lead to help for the 5 to 8 percent of high schoolers estimated to be clinically depressed.
The suburban Massachusetts high school is among a small, and slowly growing, number of schools participating in National Depression Screening Day, held this year on Oct. 7.
Some 3,000 sites across the country joined in this year’s screening, the ninth annual. While hundreds of college campuses offer the screenings, only a few high schools take part.
In addition to Massachusetts, schools in Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are among the 15 high schools that participated, according to the National Mental Illness Screening Project, which administers the program.
Holliston students answered 27 questionsDo they feel hopeless? Have trouble concentrating? Feel sad? Contemplate suicide?on a scale of zero to 2.
Students tallied up their points themselves after being told that scores of 20 or higher may indicate depression. The questionnaire was accompanied by names and telephone numbers to call for support.
A high number doesn’t automatically equal depression, said school psychologist Donna Moilanen, who expects about 10 percent of students scored in that range. “It means there’s cause for concern, and we need to sit down and get that student some help.”
The trouble is, administrators won’t know which students scored high because the screenings are anonymous. The students themselves must come forward if they want help.
“My concern is we’re going to have an inventory come back saying this kid is suicidal, this kid is going off the chart on thisand we’re not going to know who that kid is,” she said.
The school decided to give the screenings after seeing the results of a state behavior survey taken by Holliston students last year. Nearly one-quarter of the students said they had experienced suicidal thoughts, and 12 percent said they had tried to kill themselves.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds nationally, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide has more than doubled for this age group since 1950, though some of that may be attributed to better reporting.
While societal stigma against depression is easing among adults, it remains taboo among teen-agers, said Carol Glod, who studies teen-age depression at McLean Hospital in Belmont and teaches the subject at Northeastern University.
“Teen-agers and parents of teen-agers are very concerned about depression, but it’s still a bad word,” she said. “No kid wants to say they’re depressed and no parent wants to say ‘My child has an illness that’s psychiatric.'”
Depression screenings won’t prevent violence witnessed in school shootings around the nation recently, experts said. It’s not clear, for example, whether a screening would have alerted administrators to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students who killed themselves and 13 others in Littleton, Colo.
But helping students recognize the signs of depressionand helping them seek professional counselingare worthy enough goals in themselves, school officials said.
“As parents, we do everything and anything to help our kids,” said Karen Bresnahan, a parent of a senior at Holliston High who took the survey. “It’s wonderful the schools care, too.”
The average age of depression onset has been dropping over the years and now hovers around 30, down from 40 several decades ago. An estimated 17 million to 20 million Americans suffer from depression each year.
Between 500,000 and 800,000 American teen-agers will experience clinical depression each year, said Dr. Douglas Jacobs, who founded National Depression Screening Day.
Depression is a difficult diagnosis to make among teen-agers because the symptomsirritability, low self-esteem, and poor performanceget confused with the angst of being a teen-ager,” he said.
Holliston High School, 370 Hollis St, Holliston, MA 01746; phone (508) 429-0677.
National Depression Screening Day, (800) 573-4433, http://www.nmisp.org/depression.htm.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 120 Wall Street, 22nd Floor, New York, New York 10005; phone (888) 333-AFSP, fax (212) 363-6237, web http://www.afsp.org.