Study presses universities to diagnose depression

Report reveals one in four students 'feel sad all the time'

Dr. Glen Andrea said common symptoms of depression include lack of concentration, insomnia and decreased pleasure in activities. (Photo: Patrick Odell)

Madhav Khurana has suffered from depression since he was 13 years old.

It wasn't until he started at McGill University in 2004 that he experienced his worst bouts of depression.

"I didn't want to be around people because I thought everyone was so much happier than I was and I couldn't stand that," he wrote in an email to UNews.

However, the 25-year-old psychology graduate probably wasn't alone in his depression.


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In addition to university-provided clinics, there are also community mental health clinics.

Click to Enlarge Depression rates published in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, broken down by gender and year of study. (Patrick Odell)

One in four university students reported that they "feel sad all the time", according to a study published by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry last month. The study surveyed 1,622 students as they waited for health clinics appointments at the University of British Columbia, Wisconsin and Washington. 

Dr. Glenn Andrea, physician and director of Dalhousie University's health clinic, said depressive symptoms in university students are common and he sees them often in his patients.

"I would say about 10 to 15 per cent of the students that visit have some symptoms, especially during the beginning of each semester," said Andrea.

Andrea said these symptoms differ from patient to patient, but the most common are lack of concentration, sleep deprivation or insomnia, and decreased pleasure in hobbies and activities.

Khurana found himself dealing with these common symptoms. He said they were brought on by the transition to university life, which separated him from friends and family. This made it difficult to reach out to anybody that could help.

"Not feeling comfortable talking to my new friends about my issues made it really difficult, so I basically had to pretend all the time that everything was ok, when really I was in pain on the inside," wrote Khurana.

The role of university health clinics

The journal report suggests that university health clinics may not be doing enough to properly diagnose students that may have depression. As a result, many depressed students are slipping through the grasp of professional help.

Eric Windeler, a mental health activist with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, suggests that all university health personnel should be aware of the most recent studies and statistics on mental health in order to properly screen patients for depression.

"They should try to check in as best as possible with all students who show up for any type of issue - physical, mental, other - and ask about their mental health," wrote Windeler in an email to UNews. "To make it part of the everyday health discussion."

Andrea said doctors at Dal's health clinic perform a two question screen to see if their patient has any symptoms of depression.

They will ask if they have had decreased pleasure in activities and if they've been feeling depressed lately. If a patient says yes, doctors will go into a longer assessment, ask the patient more questions and recommend they come back for a second appointment. This is to determine if the patient needs help from counselling services or an antidepressant.

"We're not therapists, but we can help with some assessments so patients can get the help they need," said Andrea.

Screening for depression

Andrea said he realizes depression is extremely common and is different in every patient. Therefore, whether a doctor will screen for depression is determined on a case by case basis.

"If someone is coming into the clinic for something like a sore throat we're not going to go into a lengthy screening for depression," said Andrea. "We will ask them how things are going just to open that door."

At Saint Mary's University health clinic, patients are booked for 15 minute appointments and will be asked a couple questions about their mood during the appointment.

"A lot of students don't know how to address depression," said Jane Collins, nurse manager at SMU's health clinic. "They're hoping that somehow the doctor will open up so they can talk about it."

Collins said each one of their four doctors will ask different questions, but the point is to get their patient talking to read their mood. If the patient exhibits signs of depression, the doctor will continue their assessment to see if the patient needs an antidepressant or help from counselling services.

"We are not an in and out clinic," said Collins. "If students want to stay longer than 15 minutes they can."

Collins said the clinic takes longer screens for depression because many students have dropped out of university if they don't get help.

"It's really important to screen it at an early stage because that could mean the end of their whole year," said Collins.

This was the case with Khurana, who had to take six years to finish his degree. He believes that universities can do a much better job addressing mental health issues, because his university did not have the resources to treat his depression properly.

As a result, Khurana had to pay for a psychologist outside of school to help him.

"I believe this is a major issue," said Khurana. "Especially because few students can pay the price of a regular psychologist."

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