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The hope, administrators explained, is that by identifying their risk for depression, students can get the support they need before they face the rigors of academia and the disorienting experience of living away at college. There’s reason for the concern. In 2016, a record high of almost 12% of UCLA freshman reported “frequently” feeling depressed in the past year. And a report from Penn State, drawing data from 139 university and college mental health services, found that in the 2015–2016 year, use of these services increased by 30%, although enrollment grew by just 5%. This included “a persistent increase in ‘threat-to-self’ characteristics such as nonsuicidal self-injury and suicidal ideation.”
The screening initiative—which will be extended to the entire student body eventually—is part of the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, a landmark effort to understand one of the most pervasive and debilitating health conditions in the world, one that affects an estimated 350 million people and contributes to the suicides of 800,000 people, including 40,000 Americans, every year.
The university launched the challenge in 2015 as a multiyear, interdisciplinary study to develop better methods of understanding the genetic and environmental causes of depression and to improve detection, evaluation, and treatment. The goal is ambitious: to cut the global depression rate in half by 2030.
This comes at a time when public health officials around the world struggle to get their hands around what is considered the leading cause of disability among adults, costing some $210 billion in medical and long-term care and lost productivity hours each year.
“That depression has not been identified as our number-one health issue astounds me,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in announcing the campus-screening program in September 2017.