May-15-2012

What a Blood Test for Depression Really Means

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Before I begin talking about the recent news of a blood test detecting depression, I want to remind everyone that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and tomorrow this blog is hosting its annual Mental Health Month Blog Party. If you have a blog or contribute to one, please join us and spread the word that good mental health is about good health. We’ll be updating throughout the day, sharing links and comments about mental health.

A blood test to check cholesterol levels is part of a routine physical  exam. And people trust the results, even if they can’t see the cholesterol in their arteries or feel its effect on their heart. A blood test can give a clear message, good or bad, and provide a clear way to measure progress.

So it makes sense that there’d be positive responses to the recent news of a blood test that can spot depression in teens. It’s so quick and easy, right? And it gives a definitive answer, right?

Yes, it’s good news to hear about advances in depression research. But as a psychologist who has diagnosed depression for decades and helped people work through it, I am viewing this research news with some caution.

First, the good news:

  • For all that we know about mood disorders and their biological basis, there is still so much left to learn. Biological and psychological research must keep looking at all possible angles, building upon what we know.
  • Stigma toward conditions traditionally viewed as  psychological or mental is still a deterrent to getting help. It’s improving. But still, too many people hold negative views about mental health disorders, not valuing its consequences in the same light as a physical disease or illness. People are familiar with blood tests and respect the results that they provide. Perhaps if a biological indicator like a blood test were available, it could reduce stigma and help people get the treatment they need.

But I also caution readers to think about this research carefully.

  • Like much coverage about health and science breakthroughs, the news reports can sometimes be misleading. They make grander promises and statements than the research found. You can read the original study here. The research hasn’t created a blood test that physicians’ can use to detect depression, as has been reported. It’s found genetic markers, which lay the groundwork for further research, which could one day lead to something that is  widely used. One of the researchers even noted this on his blog:

“This is really preliminary: translational, but not yet close to clinical application. What is
exciting is the possibility of a for-real biological assay for depression.”

  • Depression is complex, and there are tools  already available that can accurately diagnosis depression when used by  psychologists. Doctorate-trained, licensed psychologists use these tests, along  with their clinical skills, to pinpoint the problem, the severity and the possible causes. Research has repeatedly shown the benefits of psychotherapy in treating depression, and has also demonstrated  that psychotherapy alone, or when combined with medication, is very effective in treating depression.
  • Blood tests, if ever ready for a wide, general population, would be one tool. But they cannot be the only one. As stated, depression’s causes are complex.  It would be detrimental for someone to be told the blood test says they’re fine, while they continue to struggle with unexplained sadness, loss of sleep, motivation and appetite, and all the other possible symptoms of depression.

Depression is a serious illness. It’s the number one cause of disability worldwide, keeping people out of the workforce. It causes financial, physical and emotional burdens on those who live with it, as well as those who care about anyone with depression.

I believe one day all ailments will be viewed as just health ailments, not of a mental or physical nature, and our health care system will reflect that new view of health. This research helps get us closer to that day. But until then, know that right now psychologists offer highly effective tests that can diagnose depression as well as treatment options to help people overcome it.

Photo by iamsilverfox

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