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Every October since 1992, thousands of Americans have made a move to improve their lives by going to a free screening for depression, one of the most common and deadly diseases in America. Left untreated, depression ends in suicide for one in seven with the illness, says Dr. Douglas G. Jacobs, the Harvard psychiatrist who created the screening project.
Sponsors of the National Depression Screening Day each year invite 100,000 people to show up at more than 1,800 sites nationwide. Sites include hospitals, clinics, schools, churches, military stations, and even shopping malls.
As of 1996, Dr. Jacobs calculates that 8,000 depressed Americans probably would have died by their own hands had they not attended a screening. “Their symptoms were so severe,” he says, “that the attending physicians recommended immediate treatment or hospitalization.” The screenings also save many others from the terrible day-to-day effects of milder forms of depression.
The National Institute of Mental Health found that 80 percent of those screened each year are “clinically depressed,” Dr. Jacobs says. Data also show the most prevalent symptoms were psychological-such as a sense of hopelessness or joylessness-rather than physical.
“We had always expected depressed people to report mostly body symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, sleep troubles, and restlessness,” Dr. Jacobs explains. “I hope that doctors will now be paying more attention to the patient’s mental state. The most important and deadliest sign is a patient’s statement that he or she wants to commit suicide.”
Depression is not hopeless. New and old treatments work better for depression than treatments for most other mental diseases. Powerful antidepressants may be used to keep the illness at bay. Psychotherapy, the “talking cure,” is effective for many. Even if the patient is on the threshold of suicide, medication and psychotherapy are effective. For those patients who do not respond, there are alternative treatments, including the modern form of electroconvulsive therapy – a safe treatment for the most serious forms of depression.

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