Depression Can Strike Early, Undetected

Many college students considering suicide are off the radar, study finds.

ByABC News
January 11, 2011, 4:17 PM

Jan. 12, 2011— -- It shouldn't be surprising that mental health officials didn't zero in on Jared Loughner's reported problems long before he opened fire Saturday in Tucson.

It is not known whether Loughner suffers from any mental illness, but many young people do, particularly depression. And research shows that even top universities fail to see it when students about the age of Loughner struggle with depression, sometimes a precursor to violence, suicide and paranoia.

A large study at three widely separated schools (the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington and the University of British Columbia) found that one out of every four or five students who visited a school health facility for a routine cold or sore throat were depressed. The students filled out a confidential form and inserted it in a locked box to protect their identity, so no one knew it at the time. And many of the depressed students had suicidal thoughts or were considering suicide.

Yet screening for depression is amazingly easy - just a couple of simple questions may reveal it - according to Michael Fleming of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, lead author of a study published in the current issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

"It should be done for every student who walks into a health center," Fleming said in releasing the study. "These kids might drop out of school because they are so sad or hurt or kill themselves by drinking too much or taking drugs."

The study found that treating depression with pharmaceuticals won't solve the problem unless the underlying causes of depression are also addressed. One thing seemed to work, however. Students who were active physically, either walking, riding a bike, running, or engaging in physical work, were much less likely to feel depressed. Conversely, a sedentary life style was a likely road to depression.

Some 1,622 persons took part in the study. It should not be surprising that many of them were going through at least a mild depression. They were passing through a major transitional phase in their lives, separated from family members and old friends, overworked and underpaid.