Getting a Depression Screening? Here’s What to Know Before You Go

If you’re feeling down and have been for a while, you may want to ask your doctor if it might be depression. Here, experts reveal what to expect during screening.

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patient sitting on couch with psychologist doctor talking screening psychotherapy
During a depression screening, a health professional will ask you a series of questions about how you've been feeling to determine if what you're experiencing is depression.iStock

Depression is a mood disorder that causes you to feel extremely sad or lose interest in things you once enjoyed (or both). It can also cause disturbances in sleeping, eating, and energy levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Other symptoms of depression include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or worry
  • Feeling easily frustrated or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Thoughts or self-harm or suicide

It can impact nearly every aspect of your life, including the way you think, feel, and act. So, if you think you have depression, it's important to seek professional help.

Your doctor (or other healthcare provider) might recommend you undergo a depression screening, also called a depression test. “Depression screenings are tools utilized by clinicians to test patients and figure out whether or not they have depression, as well as [evaluate] the severity of symptoms,” says Lindsey Akerman, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified holistic health counselor, and the director of adult and teen mental health at Clear Recovery Center in Redondo Beach, California.

Along with diagnosing depression, the goal of screening is to identify whether you could benefit from professional mental health treatment.

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Why Might I Need a Depression Screening?

Because depression can be a debilitating mental health condition affecting many aspects of a person’s life. Individuals with depression can live happy and fulfilling lives, but it's important to learn how to manage the condition — and that management starts with a depression screen.

“Usually, people undergoing depression screenings have already taken the initial step of reaching out for help as a result of experiencing new or worsening mental health symptoms,” says Akerman. Screenings are also used throughout the treatment process to gauge the effectiveness of treatment, she says.

You might also be given a depression questionnaire during a routine health checkup at your primary care provider’s office, according to Hannah Fox, DNP, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with the Stella Center, a company that provides a variety of mental health services. “Depression screening can be a part of an annual physical and is required by some insurance companies,” she says.

Whether you’re participating in a depression test as part of a routine checkup or because you've reported symptoms of depression, it's important to answer the questions openly and honestly so that you can be properly diagnosed and receive the treatment you may need.

What Happens During a Depression Screening?

Depression screenings are given in a variety of healthcare settings, such as a primary care doctor’s office, a psychiatric clinic, or a therapy office. Wherever you usually receive healthcare treatment is potentially the same place where you will also be screened for depression.

“Depression screenings can be performed by your primary care provider, a licensed therapist, social worker, professional counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner,” says Akerman.

The term “screening” may sound scary and a little intimidating, but a depression screening simply involves answering a set of questions, either on paper or out loud to a healthcare provider in a private setting.

There are a few different evidence-based scales (or sets of questions) used to assess people for depressive symptoms, such as the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), or the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). While these questionnaires are available online, they’re meant to be administered and interpreted by a mental health professional.

They're all used to diagnose depression and to determine the severity of symptoms, so they can be used interchangeably depending on the preference of your healthcare provider.

Each scale focuses on a few main themes.

“The questions during a depression screening may vary but typically focus on a person's mood, energy level , sleep patterns, appetite, focus, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide,” says Brent Nelson, MD , an adult interventional psychiatrist and chief medical information officer at PrairieCare in Edina, Minnesota.

The questions are often provided in a self-report format with a numerical scale to help identify the severity of each symptom, adds Akerman. One example, per Akerman, from the BDI:

“In general, how sad have you been feeling lately?”

  • 0: I do not feel sad.
  • 1: I feel sad.
  • 2: I am sad all the time, and I can’t snap out of it.
  • 3: I am so sad and unhappy that I can’t stand it.

“The scores are added up at the end to determine if you have depression and how severe it is,” says Akerman.

How Can I Prepare for a Depression Screening?

Depression tests are very straightforward and require very little preparation before your visit. However, there are a few things that you can do to get the most out of your visit and to mentally prepare yourself for the questions you’ll be asked.

Dr. Nelson suggests that you write down any symptoms that you’ve been experiencing and how long you have noticed them. “It is also helpful to bring along any past medical history and current medications,” he adds.

Try to go to your appointment with an open mind, and be prepared to answer potentially difficult questions honestly. Remember, your provider is there to help you and not to cast judgment. You can and should try to be completely open with them during these appointments.

I Want to Do a Depression Screening — Now What?

You can call and set up an appointment with your primary care provider — someone you likely already know and trust. Or, you can set up care with someone who specializes in mental health, such as a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or licensed therapist. Any of these healthcare professionals can screen for, diagnose, and treat depression.

Taking that first step and scheduling an appointment with someone, regardless of who you choose, is often the most important. Once you are evaluated, referrals can be made between specialties when needed so you can get the help you need.

For example, if you decide to start with your primary care provider for a depression test and they think you would benefit from therapy, they can refer you to a therapist. If you start by seeing a therapist and they think you could benefit from medication, they can refer you to a psychiatrist (or another professional who can prescribe it).

What Happens After a Depression Screening?

If the results of your depression screening indicate you have depression, your provider may recommend some next steps to help you get professional treatment.

“Treatment for depression may include therapy, psychiatric medications, or recommendations for lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise,” says Dr. Fox.

You may need long-term treatment for your depression, per Mayo Clinic. This is because depression is often a chronic condition with recurrent episodes. But fortunately, many people with depressive disorders often feel better with talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Around half of people who experience one depressive episode will not experience a second one, research shows.

“Depression is real, common, and treatable,” says Nelson, “There are a variety of options to treat depression, so having access to a provider and starting the treatment process is most important.”