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Often dismissed as a case of "the blues," depression can cause serious harm if left undiagnosed or untreated, says Douglas Jacobs, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of Screening For Mental Health, Inc.

To counter that, more than 1,000 sites across the USA, including colleges, community organizations, and military installations, will offer free anonymous screening tests for depression and other mental health issues today through National Depression Screening Day. The assessment, also available online at www.HelpYourselfHelpOthers.org, will evaluate individuals on 13 multiple-choice questions about everything from appetite and sleeping patterns to changes in mood and behavior.

It's sponsored by Screening for Mental Health, Inc. and the free in-person services will continue at some facilities through October, so check the list of participating groups online, says Katherine Cruise, spokesperson. The online screening tool will be available year-round.

"When we started National Depression Screening Day in 1991, about one-third of people who suffered from depression received treatment ... now about 50% of those who suffer from depression will get treatment each year. That still leaves a significant number who do not receive treatment," says Jacobs. "The bottom line is, the earlier the intervention, the better likelihood for a positive outcome."

It's important that people take the screening either online or in person, or refer their friends and family who may be at risk, Jacobs says. The screenings provide a score, rather than a diagnosis, and will evaluate whether the results are consistent with an individual suffering from a mental health issue. Mental health clinicians will be on hand to provide information and to direct individuals to mental health providers as needed.

Although a significant number of people suffering from depression do not get treatment, the results of a recent poll show most Americans wouldn't hesitate to seek help for mental health issues. A telephone survey of 1,021 American adults found that nearly 3 in 4 individuals said they would likely speak to a health care professional if they believed they exhibited signs of depression.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they believe depression can be successfully treated often and more than half said they know personally know someone who has undergone treatment for depression.

The survey provides hope that people will consider seeking help for mental health issues, but there's a difference between considering it and actually going to see your health care provider says Carlos Zarate, chief, Section of Neurobiology and Treatment of Mood Disorders at the National Institute of Mental Health.

"It's fair to say that more people recognize treatment and more people are considering it ... but the reality is that many are still not diagnosed with depression and the problem is that very few actually go and receive treatment," Zarate says.

Celebrities and public figures stepping forward in recent years and speaking out about depression and other disorders has helped reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, Zarate says. However, family and friends can play a pivotal role in encouraging their loved ones seek help.

"Oftentimes the person who is ill has a hard time getting motivated and the family and friends can help by going in with them. Sometimes people won't realize what's going on with them, but family and friends do."

Jacobs says lack of knowledge is often at the root of stigma surrounding depression and mental health issues. "Depression is not a weakness. It's a biologic condition that tends to run in families, affects women more than men, it affects people of all economic strata. During times of stress there can be an increase in incidence ... but it's not because a person is weak."

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