Americans visit their physicians for a multitude of reasons: a common cold, allergies, diabetes, hypertension, an annual women’s examination and for mental health disorders such as depression. The U.S. census has determined that Americans have been visiting their doctors less and less over the years, making each appointment with their physician more valuable. From a physician’s standpoint, seeing patients less means less face-to-face time and less time to screen and educate them for health risks. Therefore, it is imperative that all bases are covered, including mental health screening.

Depression affects people of all genders and ages, and presents with decreased energy, changes in appetite and sleep, feelings of guilt, loss of interest and impairment of concentration. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness including depression, many people are reluctant to converse about this taboo topic even with their physicians, who are viewed as the safe keepers of secrets associated with medical and mental health.

Depression a higher priority in health care

With depression rates increasing, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has made strong recommendations for physicians to actively screen patients for depression at regular visits — incorporating depression screening as part of a regular annual checkup.

“Based on census data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 7.6 percent of Americans over the age of 12 — that’s more than 20 million people — suffered from moderate to severe depressive symptoms from 2009 to 2012. The same report found that 43 percent of people with severe depressive symptoms reported significant challenges with their professional and personal lives,” according to an article in the Atlantic.

The USPSTF is an independent panel of health care experts established in 1984 who work to make evidence-based recommendation guidelines on screening and preventive measures for many aspects in health care including breast cancer screening, vaccinations, lung cancer screening, developmental milestone screening and hypertension and diabetes screening. The organization recently updated guidelines on depression screening, an area which has not been updated by this governing body since 2009. The USPSTF formally recommends that all patients be screened for depression using a universal questionnaire provided by health care professionals. The USPSTF labels this a category B recommendation, which means that the net benefit of this screening is moderate to substantial.

“The grade puts depression screening in the same category as yearly mammograms, diabetes screening in overweight and obese patients, and lung-cancer screening for at-risk patients, among other things. In doing so, it also elevates mental health to a higher priority in primary care.”

Take an active stance in health care

Depression is just as important as any physical illness such as diabetes and hypertension, so screening is crucial, especially since depression can take a major toll on the body. Although these guidelines are made for physicians, it is also important that patients take an active stance and ask their health care provider questions pertaining to their mental health.