Abstract Background The use of short screening questionnaires may be a promising option for identifying children at risk for depression in a community setting. The objective of this study was to assess the validity of the Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ) and one- and two-item screening instruments for depressive disorders in a school-based sample of young adolescents. Methods Participants were 521 sixth-grade students attending public middle schools. Child and parent versions of the SMFQ were administered to evaluate the child's depressive symptoms. The presence of any depressive disorder during the previous month was assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (DISC) as the criterion standard. First, we assessed the diagnostic accuracy of child, parent, and combined scores of the full 13-item SMFQ by calculating the area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUC), sensitivity and specificity. The same approach was then used to evaluate the accuracy of a two-item scale consisting of only depressed mood and anhedonia items, and a single depressed mood item. Results The combined child + parent SMFQ score showed the highest accuracy (AUC = 0.86). Diagnostic accuracy was lower for child (AUC = 0.73) and parent (AUC = 0.74) SMFQ versions. Corresponding versions of one- and two-item screens had lower AUC estimates, but the combined versions of the brief screens each still showed moderate accuracy. Furthermore, child and combined versions of the two-item screen demonstrated higher sensitivity (although lower specificity) than either the one-item screen or the full SMFQ. Conclusions Under conditions where parents accompany children to screening settings (e.g. primary care), use of a child + parent version of the SMFQ is recommended. However, when parents are not available, and the cost of a false positive result is minimal, then a one- or two-item screen may be useful for initial identification of at-risk youth
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