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Health & Wellness

Depression Screening Day Is Tomorrow

Fast, easy, confidential survey can spot those needing help

Stress is normal. It can even be beneficial in some situations, but in others can cause a tailspin of fear, anxiety, or depression.

That’s why it’s important to take advantage of the free and confidential screening for depression being offered on Wednesday, October 4, National Depression Screening Day. The screenings are being held at two locations on the Charles River Campus—the FitRec lobby and the George Sherman Union, and on the Medical Campus in the School of Public Health lobby. The easy three-minute questionnaire from Behavioral Medicine professionals at Student Health Services is a mini–mental health checkup that can help students and staff gauge when their stress is entering dangerous territory. Last year, nearly 350 people were screened at BU, and about 44 percent tested positive for anxiety or depression, a significant increase from the year before, when 18 percent screened positive.

Carrie Landa, director of Behavioral Medicine, says many students are so focused on academic performance that they neglect to get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, and take needed breaks from their studies.

“I think students often forget to do the basics,” Landa says. “Everyone has a bad day on occasion, but when the bad days are outweighing the good days, or academic or social functioning is becoming impaired, it is important to reach out for support.”

Students often have high expectations of themselves and struggle when they feel as though they’ve fallen short. Amanda Valenti (CAS’19), who transferred from Bunker Hill Community College last year, says that after she received her first poor grade at BU, her worries intensified, and her grades slipped further. She was put on academic probation before she reached out for help from services on campus and a psychiatrist. “I didn’t speak up when I should have; I thought I could just do it,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who didn’t want to disappoint myself and my family.”

Now a junior, Valenti says she realizes that it’s best to take a break and “get yourself centered and where you need to be.”

National Depression Screening Day Facts and Figures. Graphic by Gabriella Ketema

National Depression Screening Day Facts and Figures. Graphic by Gabriella Ketema

According to a 2016 survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA), nearly 40 percent of BU students said they felt so depressed in the last 12 months that it was difficult to function, and the same percentage said they felt overwhelming anxiety at some point in the last 12 months. About 15 percent reported that depression had affected their academic performance.

And while an increasing number of students seem to need mental health services, the good news is that they are seeking it. The number of student visits to Behavioral Medicine rose significantly from the 2015-2016 academic year (10,564) to the 2016-2017 academic year (nearly 13,000), and the number of students in emotional crisis seeking emergency help also rose, to 285 this year, up from 222 last year and 194 a year earlier.

A broader ACHA survey of 102 colleges found that about 16 percent of students nationally felt so depressed in the last 12 months that it was difficult to function.

Dorothy Hutchinson (Sargent’86,’95), Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation director of services, says it’s important for students to realize that having 750 friends on Facebook or Instagram isn’t the same thing as having friends to hang out with on the weekend. She believes many students struggle with loneliness at a time of increased responsibility.

“The University has really increased its rigor,” Hutchinson says. “I think the students are stressed because they work really hard and a lot of them have jobs and are trying to balance a social life, while their families are making sacrifices for them to be here. So they worry.”

In June, University officials announced the creation of a Mental Health Task Force to find ways to improve the campus-wide approach to mental health and well-being. Student Health Services has partnered with the Jed Foundation to enhance systems and supports for students. Goals include reviewing and improving policies around student wellness, mental health, and substance abuse, and new training opportunities for faculty and support staff.

“Everyone has a bad day on occasion, but when the bad days are outweighing the good days, or academic or social functioning is becoming impaired, it is important to reach out for support.”—Carrie Landa

Wednesday’s confidential screening for depression and anxiety, two closely related disorders, will also help people identify when the blues or a recurring worry have become something more serious. The short multiple choice questionnaire asks about sleeping and eating habits, as well as other information that can detect risks for mood disorders and post-traumatic stress.

The tests will be offered on a first come, first served basis. (Locations and times are listed below.) Organizers encourage students and staff to bring friends or romantic partners, particularly if they have concerns about changes in behavior. Problems functioning day to day, disturbed sleep, changes in eating habits, social withdrawal, and of course, thoughts of self-harm or suicide could signal a need for help.

Madison Gullotti (Sargent’19) says being away from home freshman year at a large college with few familiar faces triggered worry so extreme it made her physically sick. Although she had understanding family and friends, she became less willing to go out and her social life suffered, making her feel more isolated.

She saw a private therapist, who helped her devise coping strategies, including ways to confront her social fears and push herself outside her comfort zone. More recently, Gullotti began working with underclassmen as part of a research project investigating ways that mentorship can help students cope. She says that has helped her as well.

“I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me with anxiety, that feeling of tunnel vision, thinking like it’s never going to get better,” Gullotti says. “I tell them it’s going to take hard work that you’re not going to want to put into this, but it’s so worth it if you do.”

The screenings, now in their 10th year, have grown from about 50 people being screened in 2008 to more than 400 in 2015. Last year, of the about 344 people screened at BU, 42 percent were positive for anxiety or depression and 4 people needed urgent referral to Behavioral Health professionals.

Margaret Ross, Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders medical director and former medical director of Behavioral Health, says the stigma around asking for help with mental health issues has diminished as more students get comfortable talking to one another and to professionals about their challenges.

Too little stress and too much stress can reduce productivity, she says, leaving people to find the sweet spot where they work optimally. This is one of the reasons Ross started the Behavioral Health screening clinics 10 years ago. Sometimes people are taken by surprise when they learn they score high after a screening, she says.

Treatment can involve therapy, mindfulness techniques, and other strategies, as well as medication.

“Everybody can feel stress and many are able to deal with it, but for some people it undoes them,” Ross says. “We’re interested in helping the people with clinically significant anxiety to develop tools to deal with it.”

Depression screenings will be available tomorrow, October 4, in the GSU Link, 775 Comm Ave, from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 6:30 p.m., and in the FitRec lobby, 915 Comm Ave, from 4 to 7 p.m., on the Medical Campus, in the School of Public Health lobby, 715 Albany St., from 4 to 7 p.m. The screenings are free, confidential, and open to students, faculty, and staff.

Those interested in seeking confidential mental health counseling can contact Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, the Samaritans of Boston suicide hotline, and BU’s Faculty & Staff Assistance office

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.


One Comment on Depression Screening Day Is Tomorrow

  • Harold A. Maio on 10.04.2017 at 12:53 pm

    The proper response on a college campus to someone directing a stigma is to counsel them, student,t faculty or administration,. Never does one allow voicing a stigma to stand any more than one allows voicing racism to stand,.

    Students have an absolute right to an education free of that prejudice, and educators have an absolute responsibility to provide it.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

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