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Americans More Fearful Than Depressed

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 19, 2001 -- Across the country, people are grappling with emotions -- sadness, anxiety, fear. The haunting images we've seen on TV, the real loss some have felt in their lives, actions of bioterrorism -- all seem to be taking a toll.

Could all this turmoil send our country into a state of depression? Not likely, it seems.

By coincidence, National Depression Screening Day -- an annual event for the past 11 years -- was scheduled for Oct. 11, just one month after the national tragedy. It was a day when people in all 50 states could walk into shopping malls, colleges, or libraries, take a quick checklist test, and find out if they needed help with depression.

"Many people don't realize they are depressed," says Douglas G. Jacobs, MD, the screening day organizer. "They have vague feelings -- they're feeling down, they've lost interest in life, then there's a domino effect and it develops into depression. We don't give them a diagnosis, but we do give people an idea whether they should be getting help or not."

The results of the depression screening are still being analyzed, but Jacobs says turnout across the country was "about the same, maybe slightly greater than in the past."

This year, however, more people sought help before the screening, he tells WebMD. "People didn't want to wait, which is good. With any of these disorders, the sooner you get treatment, the better. The longer the symptoms stay around, the harder they are to treat."

Counselors at the New York City screening sites saw the worst, as might be expected.

"There were a number of people who had been in near-miss experiences, who worked in the financial center, who were experiencing stress-related symptoms," says Eric Hollander, MD, director of clinical psychopharmacology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

"They're having disrupted sleep, nightmares, flashbacks, other symptoms of what would be post-traumatic stress disorder -- they startle more easily, they're more vigilant on the streets or in the subways, looking for potential terrorists," he tells WebMD. "A lot of people are angry, anxious, uncertain, and fearful of the future. Some people are really feeling helpless."

In sunny Los Angeles -- some 2,000 miles from recent events -- it's pretty much life as usual, says one resident. "Everybody seems to think it's all happening out east."

But ask L.A. psychiatrists, and you get a different story.

"Maybe it's because I'm a psychiatrist, but people -- even friends -- are more prone to tell me what's keeping them up at night," says Heather Krell, MD, director of psychiatric outpatient services at UCLA.

People are indeed feeling "down," but not to the point of heading for therapy, Krell tells WebMD. "We've all gone through the shock; now we're going through a phase of realizing that our lives have all changed, permanently. But because we're so far from the actual site of the tragedies, and probably because it's all so recent, few people are actively going to therapy."

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