School Mental Health

, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 34–45 | Cite as

The Modified Depression Scale (MDS): A Brief, No-Cost Assessment Tool to Estimate the Level of Depressive Symptoms in Students and Schools

  • Erin C. Dunn
  • Renee M. Johnson
  • Jennifer Greif Green
Original Paper


Adolescent health researchers and practitioners are frequently interested in assessing depression as part of student screening and for school-wide prevention and intervention planning. However, this task is challenging given the lack of free, brief assessments of depressive symptoms in youth. This study evaluated the psychometric properties of an adapted version of the Modified Depression Scale (MDS). Data came from a school-based survey of 9th-12th graders in Boston (N = 1,657). We assessed internal consistency reliability and known-group validity, in addition to the feasibility of establishing a dichotomous cut-point to classify adolescents as having high versus low depressive symptoms. We also evaluated the validity of the adapted MDS as a school-wide measure. At the student level, the adapted MDS demonstrated acceptable internal consistency. Students engaging in risk behaviors (e.g., substance use) or who were victimized (e.g., bullied) had significantly higher depressive symptom scores. Students who endorsed four or five MDS symptoms often or always had a heightened risk of suicidal ideation, substance use, and failing grades when compared to students who endorsed three or fewer symptoms often or always. At the school level, higher mean levels of depressive symptoms in a school were associated with higher mean levels of suicidal ideation and failing grades. Results of this study suggest that the adapted MDS is a promising measurement tool that could be useful to school-based professionals and researchers to evaluate depressive symptoms in adolescents and ascertain the prevalence of depressive symptoms in schools.


Depressive symptoms Population health Adolescents Reliability Validity 



The Boston Youth Survey (BYS) was conducted in collaboration with the Boston Public Health Commission (Barbara Ferrer, Director), Boston’s Office of Human Services (Larry Mayes, Chief), Boston Public Schools (Carol Johnson, Superintendent), and the Office of The Honorable Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The survey would not have been possible without the participation of the faculty, staff, administrators, and students of Boston Public Schools. We also acknowledge the work of Daria Fanelli, Alicia Savannah, Angela Browne, Dan Dao, Beth Molnar, and all those who participated in survey administration. We give special thanks to Mary Vriniotis, MSPH, and Deborah Azrael, PhD for their contributions to the project that made these analyses possible and to Gheorghe Doros, PhD and Janice Weinberg, ScD for assisting with statistical analysis. This work was supported by a grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) (U49CE00740) to the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center (David Hemenway, Principal Investigator). This work was also supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to Erin C. Dunn (F31MH088074) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the New Connections Program to Renee M. Johnson. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Erin C. Dunn
    • 1
  • Renee M. Johnson
    • 2
  • Jennifer Greif Green
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Society, Human Development, and HealthHarvard School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Community Health SciencesBoston University School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  3. 3.Special Education ProgramBoston University School of EducationBostonUSA

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