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Tools Used to Detect Depression in Children and Teens May Not Be Accurate

Tools Used to Detect Depression in Children and Teens May Not Be Accurate

Primary care physicians in both Canada and the U.S. are being encouraged to identify depression in children and adolescents. Policymakers believe early detection of depression, even if the child does not have obvious indications of the disease, will improve overall mental health care.

Physicians often use short questionnaires that ask about symptoms of depression to perform the screening. But, according to new Canadian research, there is insufficient evidence to show that any of these questionnaires accurately screen six to 18-year-olds for the disease.

As such, researchers believe the use of these assessment tools for this group should be reevaluated as the instruments may lead to misdiagnosis of the disease in this age range.

“Our study shows that if depression screening were carried out using existing screening tools, many non-depressed children and adolescents would be mistakenly identified as depressed,” says Brett Thombs, the senior author.

The research appears in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

In order to assess the quality of the screening tools that are currently being used to identify depression in children or adolescents, the researchers carried out an exhaustive search of the medical evidence looking for studies that confirmed the accuracy of the screening tools.

In the end, they were able to identify just 17 studies where the test results from the screening tools were compared with results from a diagnostic interview to determine if the children or adolescents in the study actually had depression.

Thombs and colleagues, including lead author Dr. Michelle Roseman, then assessed the methodology and results of these 17 studies. They found that most of the studies were too small to make a valid determination about the accuracy of the screening tools and that the methods of most studies fell short of expected standards.

They also found that there was inadequate evidence to recommend any single cut-off score for any of the questionnaires. (Patients scoring above a pre-defined cut-off score are considered likely to be depressed, whereas patients below the cutoff are not.)

Roseman says, “There was not a single tool with even moderate evidence of sufficient accuracy to effectively identify depressed children and adolescents without also incorrectly picking up many non-depressed children and adolescents.”

Although depression in children is a disabling condition associated with behavioral problems and poor school performance, routine screening for the disease in this age group is controversial.

In the United Kingdom it is not recommended. On the other hand, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently recommended routine screening of adolescents between 13-18, but not of younger children, as part of regular medical care.

Thombs believes that given the inaccuracy of the tools currently being used, some children could end up mislabeled as depressed.

“This could lead to the unnecessary prescription of potentially harmful psychiatric medications and negative messages about the mental health of some children who do not have mental health disorders.”

Moreover, a potentially massive amount of resources would be needed to sort out which children may really be depressed. Research suggests relatively few would meet the criteria.

“These resources would then not be available to provide treatment to large numbers of children and adolescents who are known to have severe mental health problems, but who do not receive adequate care.”

The researchers say that to properly assess the accuracy of depression screening tools in children, large, well-designed studies that present results across a range of cut-off scores are needed.

Source: McGill University

Tools Used to Detect Depression in Children and Teens May Not Be Accurate

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Tools Used to Detect Depression in Children and Teens May Not Be Accurate. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 3 Aug 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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