Last week a guideline recommendation from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, addressed depression screening in the adult population, with a special emphasis on women who are pregnant or have recently given birth. Maybe it was a lonely day in January, but these simple recommendations generated many headlines and numerous column inches on the need for better mental health services in the US.
Here is the main assessment from the USPSTF:
The USPSTF concludes with at least moderate certainty that there is a moderate net benefit to screening for depression in adults, including older adults, who receive care in clinical practices that have adequate systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up after screening.
The USPSTF also concludes with at least moderate certainty that there is a moderate net benefit to screening for depression in pregnant and postpartum women who receive care in clinical practices that have CBT or other evidence-based counselling available after screening.
“Moderate” certainty of “moderate” benefit with a slew of conditions attached. And yet stories in the New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN and Reuters all seemed to accept the premise that a sweeping increase in depression screening is justified based on the USPSTF analysis. Some of the coverage focused entirely on the implications for pregnant women and glossed over the fact that the recommendations now apply to all adults — everyone. And while these stories generally did an acceptable job of summarizing the recommendations and talking about the burden of mental illness in the US, most of the coverage was weirdly missing in action on almost everything else that counted in a serious medical screening story: explanations of the potential benefits and harms, the specificity and sensitivity of the tests, the costs of the treatment (and in this case, the myriad of costs of implementing a screening program), and the likelihood that financial conflicts of interest have inevitably tainted the research around screening tools, thus biasing the recommendations that surround them.
Consider for example how the stories addressed these issues:
Brett Thombs, PhD, an expert on depression screening at McGill University in Montreal, noted a range of potential harms which his team said are “rarely made explicit.” These include “the treatment of depression in patients who are incorrectly identified as having the disorder, the treatment of mild symptoms that would often resolve without intervention and, perhaps most importantly, the diversion of scarce resources from other endeavours, such as ensuring better care for patients already identified as having depression.”
This perspective was shared by Allen Frances, MD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, who has written widely about the medicalization of mental health. He thinks the USPSTF guidelines could be harmful. He told me over the phone that “the experts are sometimes completely naive about the public health implications of their recommendations.” His biggest concern is about the “tremendous false positive problem” with depression screening and that “you’ll capture people who are merely sad or having a bad day” and diagnose them with depression. He’s worried that “primary care doctors prescribe 80% of the antidepressants in the US, sometimes only after a 7 minute visit,” noting that the US already has extremely high rates of antidepressant use and these screening guidelines will only increase their use.
Indeed, the USPSTF recognized some potential downsides to their recommendations when they noted: “Screening should be implemented with adequate systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up.” That seemed hopeful to Susan Molchan,MD, who is one of our editorial contributors, a psychiatrist, and nuclear medicine physician.
Dr. Molchan was more supportive of the USPSTF recommendations, happy to see they included an emphasis on post-partum care. Having been through several pregnancies herself she told me she was well aware of the hormonal fluctuations, sleep deprivation, mood swings and so on that often follow childbirth so she’d welcome a tool that could help screen and diagnose depression properly in women who’d given birth. As she told me: “The screening is just the starting point, obviously these women would need to be diagnosed in context over several visits, and include mental health providers in an assessment.” Like Brett Thombs and Dr. Allen Frances, she’s wary if screening will be used as a way to fast-track women to antidepressants but was overall glad to see that the data behind the USPSTF recommendations focused on cognitive behavioral therapy.
Having examined depression screening in a book I wrote on the subject, I concluded in my chapter on depression screening that despite how much we wish screening and early intervention would help people at risk of a mental health crisis, screening for depression is not supported by good science, unlikely to reduce the burden of mental illness in the overall population, and always includes a likelihood of causing harm.
As for those news organizations that haven’t taken the time to dive into the issue, I would suggest that there is the meat here for some great journalism: look at the evidence, the potential for harm, and the conflicts of interest swirling around issues raised by these USPSTF recommendations, because there are many vital, broad and nuanced stories that can emerge. This is an incredibly rich and complicated set of issues that could generate stories for months, not just a single lonely day in January.
Alan Cassels is the author of Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided hunt for Disease (Greystone, 2012) and a contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.