Teens need early intervention

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Pediatric experts call for annual depression screenings

Although early treatment is seen as an important first step to combating depression, only about half of depressed adolescents are diagnosed before becoming adults. Primary care physicians only identify about one out of every three adolescents with depression, and only about half of those receive care. As a result, more than 80 percent of adolescents with depression receive no care at all.

That’s why primary care physicians are now being asked to screen adolescents for depression every year. The recommendations are part of new guidelines issued recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Six months of struggling with a major depressive disorder is a long time in the life of a teenager,” said Laura Saunders, PsyD, assistant director of psychology at Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living. “The sooner we can screen kids and get them additional support, the better.”

The report points to a number of issues that keep adolescents from getting the care they need, including a shortage of mental health clinicians. According to Paul Weigle, MD, associate medical director of ambulatory services at Natchaug Hospital, mental health stigma also plays a role.

“These barriers are particularly tragic because treatment for depression is safe, available and very effective,” Dr. Weigle said.

Evidence can help guide clinical practice and give physicians the tools they need to manage the condition when they see it in their patients. The new guidelines were designed to deliver tangible recommendations that pediatricians can start using now.

“Screening by primary care providers will identify most teens who are dealing with depression, and allow for a proper referral for needed treatment,” Dr. Weigle said. “This is good news for America’s teens.”

Unfortunately, depression among teens is common. Research suggests one in five people will have anxiety or depression during adolescence. The condition inflicts suffering and is often impairing for those who go through it.

The dialogue started by increased screenings can be valuable beyond the specific diagnosis of depression, according to Saunders.

“Teens can have a low-level issue that doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria but still needs attention,”  Saunders said. “When parents understand the conversation, we continue to destigmatize mental health problems and improve communication between teens and their parents.”

For more information on teen depression screenings, please visit the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network

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