Testing Kids for "Potential Depression" Seems Like a Bad Idea

By Annalee Newitz on at

What if you lived in a world where every kid got tested for potential depression when they were in primary school? This video, from Binghamton University, describes new research on how it could happen.

The researchers created a test that’s designed to determine whether children of depressive parents will also suffer from depression. So the researchers took children of depressed mothers and showed them pictures of people expressing different emotions. Based on previous research, Binghamton University psychology researcher Brandon Gibb and his colleagues believe that children whose pupils dilate when they see a sad face are more prone to depression. That’s because pupil dilation is an empathy response.

Among the children tested, the researchers found a large number whose pupils did dilate in response to sad faces. And those kids, they say, “were at great risk” for depression.

Gibb said in a statement that “this line of research could eventually lead to universal screenings in paediatricians’ offices to assess future depression risk in kids”. And this is where the research goes from interesting to potentially dystopian. Gibb is suggesting universal screenings for all children, using a test whose results only loosely predict depression. In other words, getting a “positive” on this test means a child might develop depression at some point — if the depression is hereditary, and if a lot of other factors are involved. There are many kinds of non-hereditary depression, too, which this test isn’t designed to discover.

My question is what happens to kids who are diagnosed as potential depressives once we have this “universal screening” process? Do they get a note in their school or health records that could one day affect their insurance rates or employability? Who gets to know what the kids’ depression scores are? Teachers? Administrators? Doctors? Do we start the kids on a drug regimen, to prevent potential depression before it starts? It sounds like the setup for a really terrible science fiction movie.

Having a test like this seems to risk creating a group of kids who are subject to scrutiny at best, and stigmatised at worst. Just getting a “potentially depressive” score might actually create depression. And more disturbingly, this test ignores all the kinds of depression that don’t show up on a pupil dilation test. Lots of kids and adults become depressed, and they obviously will need help regardless of whether they were singled out as “potentially depressive” at some point.

Why not treat depression when it happens, rather than trying to predict it with a test? The first step toward making that easier would be to de-stigmatise depression, so that people who suffer from it feel comfortable coming forward and getting help. A test won’t make that happen. But good, widely-available treatment programs for depression will.

Read the full scientific paper via Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Top image credit: PsyPost/ Jonathan Cohen