Can E-Mail Help Screen For Depression?

Depression and other mental health problems represent an increasing concern on college campuses. Now to me this is worth some analysis and speculation as there are so many preventative services (community mental health centers, informed pediatricians, skilled private practitioners, extensive work-ups by elementary, middle, and high school child study teams and school psychologists)available to young people before they enter college. One might expect that problems would have been identified and treated. On the other hand, being away from home, the stresses of college, and the emergence of some mental health problems during the 18-22 year-old period increase vulnerability. Christopher Overtree, Director of Psychological Services at University of Massachusetts notes:

"The number of students who come to college with mental health conditions is dramatically increasing and the level of severity that some of those students experience is a lot worse than it has been previously. In part that's because quality treatment has been made available to students to enable them to achieve in ways they haven't in the past," he said in an interview. "The good side is we see more students who might in the past have struggled and not been able to make it to college. ... But that leaves universities faced with the task of providing services to a much needier population than maybe 10 years or 15 years or 20 years ago."

A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital distributed a questionnaire to students at four unidentified colleges throughout the United States in an effort to identify the percentage who were depressed and if they were receiving treatment:

"The students answered questions about their moods and whether they had been treated for depression. Fifty-four students said they were taking medications, receiving therapy, or both. In all 82, or 14.5 percent of the students responding, scored high enough to fit the criteria for major depressive disorder. The prevalence of major depression among US adults ranges from 6.6 percent to 10.3 percent in a year.

"The 82 students who screened positive for depression were given online links to information on depression as well as resources for finding local treatment. Eight weeks later, 38 of those students completed a follow-up survey. Eight students said they looked at the online resources sent to them and one found a peer counseling group. Six said they didn't seek help because they were worried about treatment showing up on their tuition bills. The others did not seek help from either source.

"E-mail appears to be a feasible and inexpensive way to screen college students for depression," Shyu said in a conference call yesterday with reporters after presenting her team's results at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans. Findings made public in meetings such as these are considered preliminary because they have not been peer-reviewed as they would be for publication in academic journals. 'In the future, we should look to see how we can reach out to these depressed college students with other resources that may be tailored more to the college student population.'"

For me this report raises more questions than it answers. How can confidentiality and anonymity be promised? (As I write this, the effect of the WIKI Leaks are being discussed worldwide.) Are students concerned that any treatment they receive will go into their permanent computerized health care record? Is computer screening really more effective than talking to students at orientation, talks in the dorm and classrooms, etc.? At Catholic colleges, can campus ministry provide an additional level of care? And still the question, "Why so much depression when so many other expensive programs are and have been in place and when there is so much information already out there, from Oprah and beyond?" What do you think?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michelle Russell
8 years 1 month ago
I have hesitated to add to this discussion, but personal experience and observation have yielded these thoughts, which I would like to add:

Yes, indeed, "let the buyer beware" certainly now applies to mental health.  Perhaps it always did, but my experience has shown that some (many?) mental health practitioners have a different agenda than just helping their "clients".  
What is the root of this apparent upsurge in depression among college students?  Certainly, this age range has its own challenges (which have always been there, but the specific challenges change with the times, I think) which could lead them to depression, but my feeling is that our particular age leaves our children even more vulnerable.  The culture at large seems to be moving away from God/church, and that movement away does have its consequences, which perhaps is beginning to show itself in the "mental" health of our younger brothers and sisters.

My personal experience and observation, both in college many years ago and recently, has been that in many cases the good mental health professional is helpful to a point, but beyond that point can actually become harmful.  There certainly are some conditions which require ongoing psychiatric help, but I believe the garden variety depression, anxiety, angst, etc. experienced by so many in our society today is not necessarily helped by so much dependence on therapy/counseling/medication (read "One Nation under Therapy" for an interesting viewpoint).  For me, at least, so-called (and mis-diagnosed) psychological issues were actually deep-seated spiritual issues.  Can a therapist, schooled in a secular view of mental problems, help with a spiritual issue?  Perhaps, but it seems to me that spiritual help best comes from spiritual people, be that your priest, minister, prayer team, campus ministry, etc...  I feel that there should be a larger role of campus ministry on our Catholic (and other faiths) college campuses to help combat the pervasive sadness and aloneness in which some students find themselves trapped.  A strong emphasis of God's love and acceptance, outreach programs strongly showing the power of forgiveness...

Can this be attained through email?  Perhaps.  Maybe with monthly or more often "articles"/newsletters from campus ministry about love, forgiveness, the power of the Holy Spirit, etc.  sent to all email addresses of students?  Maybe students would be more willing to approach campus ministry, for there would not be the stigma of "mental health" or the fear of permanent health records.  Where does this leave the secular college campuses?  I'm not sure, but I do think we are doing a disservice to our youth by not encouraging more faith experience, more knowledge of God's love - for when you know you are loved no matter what, are loved just for who you are and knowing that that love will never go away, you can get through the roughest of patches without falling into that deep despair which is so hard to climb out of.
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
Dear Ms. Michelle Russell:

Thank you for your intelligent, perceptive, and on-target comments. I'm glad you decided to write a lengthy response.

I believe each of your points has validity and I would like to add something else.

In today's legal climate, "the best interests of the student" in terms of psychiatric help may conflict with "the best legal interests of the college."

For a college, it might be better to err on the side of caution in any circumstances involving possible suicidality in students, as these behaviors can put the college at risk vis a vis "in loco parentis" obligations. So mental health professionals affiliated with the college may tend to opt for more restrictive approaches such as psychiatric hospitalization rather than outpatient therapy; or, if outpatient therapy, this might include medication rather than talking things out.

As you wisely point out, mental health professionals in some situations are helpful up to a point, and the treatment or healing approach in the best interest of a particular student might not be the same as the what legally is considered the best interest of a college or university.

I'd like to think that Catholic colleges and universities are aware of this dual role aspect noted above, and reflect upon ways that the best interests of a particular student do not become smothered by institutional reasoning.

Let's hope that God's love and acceptance can shine through Campus Ministry. I'm still thinking about Cardinal Newman, and may these qualities shine through in many other places, too. amdg, bvo 
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
I wonder why the director of psychological services at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who was quoted in the Globe article and who was not involved in the study, made the statement, "The number of students who come to college with mental health conditions is dramatically increasing and the level of severity that some of those students experience is a lot worse than it has been previously."  This comment is taken on faith by the Globe article's author and used to substantiate the importance of identifying and helping students with possible mental health issues, but I would question whether what he said is true of all campuses or just his UMass Amherst campus or only campuses like his UMass Amherst campus.

Maybe email is a good approach for helping students recognize when they could benefit from some resources pertaining to mental health, but I always worry that people who are going through a period of personal growth will be encouraged to think of themselves as having a chronic mental health problem when they don't.
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago

Yes, I wonder how typical the colleges are of other colleges..such a diversity among many of the reported "findings" from studies really shouldn't be generalized...

I worry about where all that data is going to go....and I think it's so important to make a personal connection.

We'll see if anyone with info from other colleges weighs in on this one....bill
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
Maybe it's easier for some people to open up about their depression at one remove, email, than in person?

"Why so much depression when so many other expensive programs are and have been in place and when there is so much information already out there, from Oprah and beyond?" ....

The expensive programs and the information about depression are about identification and treatment, but the causes of depression perhaps aren't being addressed?  And sometimes it seems to me that treatment for depression doesn't actually make whatever the problem is go away, it just seeks to reconcile the person with their problem so that the symptoms of depression diminish. 
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
Crystal and David,

Reconciling a person with sadness.....experiencing depression....perhaps much of this is part of life experience during years 18-22 and throughout life?

I think the researchers presented questions to the students via email, rather than reading the students email....but email is insecure and who knows if a record is being kept somewhere??

Thanks for your thoughts. bill
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
I wonder also whether the impetus behind this effort to come up with an impersonal method by which people will recognize themselves as needing mental health care might not involve pharmaceutical companies.  Maybe all that people really need is what Lucy prescribed to Charlie Brown - involvement - but that wouldn't sell much Prozac, would it?  

we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago

It is sad that the phrase "let the buyer beware" now applies to mental health. Many can learn alot from Lucy. best, bill 
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not after me, right?


The latest from america

An extraordinary minister of the holy Eucharist distributes Communion during Mass at Transfiguration Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
According to a report released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University on Jan. 22, just 33 percent of bishops in the United States think the church “should” ordain women as deacons.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 22, 2019

When the poet Mary Oliver died last week at the age of 83, my social media feeds blossomed into a field of tributes.

Lisa AmplemanJanuary 22, 2019
Most of the undocumented immigrants who are in the United States have overstayed a visa and did not cross the border illegally, according to a new analysis from the Center of Migration Studies.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 22, 2019
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019