Online Depression Surveys Show Potential
> 4/11/2007 11:21:16 AM

While it does not serve as a substitute for professional diagnosis, an internet depression survey created several years ago by researchers in Taiwan has proven surprisingly successful in identifying depressed patients and encouraging them to visit relevant doctors.

In the study, researchers placed advertisements on a popular mental health website and found 579 individuals who volunteered to complete the mostly multiple choice questions included in the survey. After a period of one to two weeks, they sent follow-up emails to participants asking them to complete the questionnaire again for consistency measures. Volunteers were then asked to follow up with an appointment to visit a local psychiatrist in order to better gague the study's validity. Results from the initial survey showed 31% of participants with major depressive disorder, 7% with minor depression, and 15% displaying depressive symptoms not sufficient for diagnosis. 46% of the subjects were ruled depression-free. The post-clinical visit analysis revealed 3/4 of these initial diagnoses to be correct. Results were particuarly accurate for major depression, and the overall numbers may have been lowered by the fact that minor depression is a more difficult condition to define.

The concept of web-based self-assessment tools is not new, but this study is the first of its kind to directly test the validity of a particular model. Researchers reinforce the need for these surveys by noting low rates of depression diagnosis by general practictioners and claiming that many GPs are either not sufficiently qualified or not interested in diagnosing mental illness. They also mention the high costs of administering depression screening for any large portion of the population. Even though many depressed individuals will not seek out help otherwise, most public health agencies choose not to invest in such wide-reaching policies. After this study, however, they may want to consider at least sponsoring a web-based plan.

Also relevant is the observed fact that many patients, especially those with no history in therapy, feel more comfortable revealing information that relates to personal issues like suicide, sexual behaviors and substance abuse when in an anonymous web-based forum. This initial outreach is the most important step for many patients beginning the treatment process, and one of the central aspects of the internet model is the relative comfort from which patients can gague their own mental health needs. Of course, the success of these surveys depends on follow-up visits to actual clinics for direct professional observation, but they will hopefully serve as an impetus to many patients otherwise hesitant to seek treatment. A majority of the 20-40% of the worldwide population who suffer from some form of depression do not seek medical attention. The online survey could provide another venue which, if correctly advertised and utilized, will become an essential part of the treatment equation.

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