Students who participated in universal school-based depression screening were twice as likely to begin treatment compared to their peers who did not receive this screening, according to a new study.

The study provides important insights on how to tackle depression in youth, says principal investigator Deepa Sekhar, associate professor of pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine. The next step will be to look for ways to break down barriers so that school districts interested in implementing depression screening can effectively do so.

“Our study is publishing at a time when more adolescents are reporting symptoms of depression,” says Sekhar, a pediatrician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital and executive director of Penn State PRO Wellness. “From 2008 to 2018, the numbers increased by over 70% from 8.3% to 14.4%. During the pandemic, concerns about increasing student depression have been widespread. Suicides, which are often associated with mental health conditions, are now the second-leading cause of adolescent death.”

Sekhar emphasizes the high need for screening given the growing incidence of unmet mental health needs among school students. “This research shows we do have better ways to reach students,” she says.

Because most children and teenagers are enrolled in public education, screening in schools can be a more effective approach to identifying symptoms and treating depression, Sekhar adds. Depending solely on doctors and other medical professionals to spot depression isn’t sufficient.

While the United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends universal depression screening for 12- to 18-year-olds in primary care, less than half of US adolescents have regular physician checkups and even fewer get screened. Schools currently conduct vision and hearing screening to identify barriers to student academic success, but Sekhar notes that depression can also affect academic success.

The three-year study was unique from previous ones on student depression because of its large size. More than 12,000 students in 9th through 12th grade, from 14 Pennsylvania public high schools, were involved, Sekhar says. Another distinctive element was that students were predominantly minority, from urban and rural districts, and many were from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

In each of the schools, students in two of the four high school grade levels were randomly assigned to be screened for depressive symptoms through an established questionnaire. Students in the other grades went through the school year as usual, receiving screening and support through Pennsylvania’s state-mandated Student Assistance Program only if they were flagged based on concerning behavior.

Read the full article about depression screenings by Barbara Schindo at Futurity.