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Race Matters When Screening for Depression

Race Matters When Screening for Depression

New research finds that some standard ways of looking for depression risk may not work as well for black people as they do for whites.

But listening to how blacks describe their own mental health could help, according to the study.

In the study, published in Frontiers in Public Health, a researcher from the University of Michigan Medical School and School of Public Health, along with a colleague, analyzed long-term data from the nationally representative Americans’ Changing Lives study.

The people studied — including 2,205 whites and 1,156 blacks — took a standard depression screening test at the start of their involvement in the long-term tracking study, based at the university’s Institute for Social Research.

Called the CES-D and used around the world for decades, it asked a range of quick questions about their emotions, sleep, appetite, and energy levels.

Fifteen years later, they underwent a much more detailed interview meant to assess their mental health.

Those who scored high on depressive symptoms at the outset were in general more likely to meet the definition of having major depression at the later date, according to the findings.

But when the researchers broke the results down by race, they were surprised.

White participants whose answers on the initial screening indicated a risk for depression were more likely to actually have major depression at the time of the later interview. But this didn’t hold true for blacks, according to the researchers.

The difference persisted even after the researchers corrected for differences in the participants’ social, economic, and physical health status.

What did seem to predict later depression, though, was black participants’ self-rated health, in which they were asked to rate their overall health on a scale of excellent to poor. Blacks whose self-reported health status was worse at the start were more likely to have major depression later on, according to the researchers.

“Counting the number of symptoms does not similarly inform us about the subsequent risk of the clinical disorder similarly for whites and blacks,” said Shervin Assari, M.D., MPH, senior author of the paper and a research investigator in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.

“This finding questions the universal applicability of a tool which has been developed and validated for whites. The results also have major implications for screening and treatment of depression in black communities.”

Assari and his colleague, psychiatrist Dr. Ehsan Moazen-Zadeh of the Iran University of Medical Sciences, said the results of their research suggest that differences in the longitudinal link between baseline CES-D scores and later risk of major depression may explain some of the differences between blacks and whites that have been seen in depression.

They note that their work does not debunk the validity of the CES-D in measuring depression risk reliably. In fact, the test was more reliable in blacks than whites in measuring depressive symptoms at each time point. But its use in predicting long-term risk of depression in blacks may be lower, they conclude.

The CES-D depression screening questionnaire can be accessed here.

Source: University of Michigan Health System 
Depressed man in therapy photo by shutterstock.

Race Matters When Screening for Depression

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Race Matters When Screening for Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 5 Mar 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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