Anna Williams vividly remembers her first encounter with depression.
"I had quit eating and drinking, and I was not sleeping well," said Ms. Williams, a 48-year-old Ellicott City resident.
Five months later, she felt euphoric.
"It's the opposite extreme," Ms. Williams said. "You think there's nothing you can't do. You do things that are so out of character, like spending money without any thought."
Ms. Williams eventually was diagnosed with bipolar depression, a mental illness in which people experience cycles of depression and elation.
Now Ms. Williams is urging others who feel they have clinical depression to take advantage of the free screenings being offered today as part of National Depression Screening Day.
"The purpose is to educate people about depression," said Connie Adamson, spokeswoman for a consortium of seven county agencies participating in the fourth annual event.
The county will have nine sites people can visit to learn about the causes and symptoms of depression. A mental health professional also will be on hand to determine whether visitors need evaluation and treatment.
At the Family Life Center in Columbia, clients can participate in a two-hour session that includes a lecture, slide show or video, a written questionnaire and a confidential meeting with a therapist.
The screenings are designed for people who feel persistently sad, anxious or empty, who contemplate suicide or death and who suffer from fatigue.
"If people are having those kinds of feelings, those would be some of the markers" of clinical depression, said Dr. Thomas King, director of psychiatric services at Howard County General Hospital.
About 15 million Americans suffer from depression each year, Dr. King said. Of those, about half receive treatment.
Many don't receive proper help because they attribute their depression to physical problems, such as aches and pains, Dr. King said. Others refuse to seek treatment, believing they suffer from a personal weakness that they can remedy themselves.
As depression becomes more openly discussed, more people are becoming aware of the condition and seeking treatment, Dr. King said.
"Fortunately, a lot of prominent people are coming forward saying they suffer from depression, which helps destigmatize it," he said, referring to such celebrities as actress Patty Duke, author William Styron and columnist Art Buchwald.
During the screenings, clients can answer a questionnaire about their emotions, interests, and sleeping and eating habits.
The test is too brief to determine whether someone truly is suffering from depression, but it can be used to determine whether the person needs further evaluation.
"If there's an indication [of clinical depression], it's a way to help people get into the mental health care system," Ms. Adamson said.
Last year, 56,000 people were screened at 1,300 sites throughout the country, she said. Of those screened, about 60 percent sought further treatment.
Anti-depressant medicines and psychotherapy can be used to treat depression.
Ms. Williams said medicine helps her cope with her illness.
"It's kind of a fine-tuner," she said. "I still get down, but not as severe as I used to get."
Coping with the disease takes time and understanding, Ms. Williams said.
"It's an illness," she said. "That's the hardest thing for us to understand. It's not our fault."
HOWARD COUNTY'S NINE SCREENING SITES
Appointments for the free screenings for clinical depression are not necessary, but organizers ask those interested to call ahead.
9 a.m. Taylor Manor Hospital, 4100 College Ave., Ellicott City, 465-3322.
11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Family Life Center, 10451 Twin Rivers Road, Columbia, 997-3557.
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Glen Mar Parish Care Center, 8970 Old Annapolis Road, Ellicott City.
1 p.m. Mental Health Association of Howard County at the East Columbia Senior Center, 6600 Cradlerock Way, Columbia, 992-5670.
3 p.m. Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, 531-6677.
5 p.m. Greenspring Mental Health Services, 5565 Sterrett Place, third floor, Columbia, 1-800-245-7013.
5 p.m. Howard County General Hospital, Columbia at the Columbia Medical Center, 11055 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite L9, Columbia, 740-7600.
6 p.m. to 8 p.m. First Lutheran Church, 3604 Chatham Road, Ellicott City.
7:30 p.m. "Women and Depression" seminar. Dr. Jemima A. Kankam will discuss factors that contribute to depression in women and strategies to cope with depression. Columbia Medical Center, 11055 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite L9, Columbia, 740-7600.