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What is the Beck Depression Inventory?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) is a self-reporting test used by care providers to assess people who may have depression. It can be used by primary care providers or by mental health professionals, although some people take the test on their own. Care providers use the Beck Depression Inventory as part of an overall screening of a patient and it is a diagnostic tool, not a conclusive test. People who take the test on their own should seek help from a mental health professional if the results indicate that they may be experiencing depression.

This mental health tool was developed in 1961 by Dr. Aaron T. Beck. Beck recognized that depression had both physical and emotional components. The Beck Depression Inventory combines a series of questions that bring up physical symptoms like fatigue, as well as emotional ones, like feeling unhappy. The goal is to create a balanced picture of the patient's emotional and physical state that can be used to assess the patient for depression.

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Twenty one questions are included on the Beck Depression Inventory. They are all multiple choice and a score is assigned to each question. The more weight an answer has, the higher it will be scored. Thus, someone who responds “I do not feel sad” to a question about sadness will receive a score of zero, as opposed to the person who says “I am so sad or unhappy that I can't stand it,” who would receive a score of three. At the end of the test, the scores are added together to come up with a single number.

A person who scores less than 10 is not a cause for concern. Scores between 10 and 16 indicate mild depression, while scores between 17 and 29 are seen in people with moderate depression. Scores higher than 30 show severe depression. When combined with other observations, including discussions with the patient, the Beck Depression Inventory can be used to determine whether or not someone has depression, how long it has been going on, and how it can best be treated.

There are some caveats to be aware of with the Beck Depression Inventory. Because it is self-reported, rather than based on observation, there can be some bias. People may receive high scores because they are having a particularly hard day and thus have difficultly answering the questions neutrally, for example. In addition, because the test includes physical symptoms like fatigue, people with chronic illnesses, some disabilities, or a temporary sickness may score high even though they are not actually depressed. It is important to contextualize the findings of this test with a patient interview.

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