Wednesday, May 20, 2009

School district goes hunting for depression

Test program to identify students with mental issues or suicidal tendencies

Express Staff Writer

These students at Wood River High School seem like a happy and carefree lot. However, statistics compiled by the National Center for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion indicate that one out of six teens in Idaho will “think seriously about suicide” during any given year. Photo by Willy Cook

A pilot program will start in two upper level schools in Blaine County next school year to identify depression, anxiety and other mental ailments in students.

The TeenScreen program was approved last week by the Blaine County School District board of trustees. The pilot program will include students enrolled in eighth-grade health classes at Wood River Middle School and in 10th-grade health classes at Wood River High School.

Taking the TeenScreen tests is strictly voluntary and will require approval of both the parents and the students to be screened.

"The purpose is to screen adolescents for mental health issues, which often go unrecognized," said Blake Walsh, district director of student services. "One of the goals is to prevent suicide, but we're not trying to present it as a suicide prevention program, because that's a little more scary to parents. But we do hope it will help identify any students who might be thinking of suicide."

Suicide is only an extreme consequence of students who might suffer from depression, anxiety or another mental ailments. Other consequences can be loss of interest in school and life in general, difficulty at developing or maintaining relationships, use of drugs or alcohol or antisocial behavior.

Some students show outward signs of a mental ailment, but others don't, said Julie Carney, social worker at the high school.

The TeenScreen program was developed at Columbia University and has been thoroughly evaluated for inclusion on the National Registry of Evidence Based Programs and Practices. The program has been implemented at schools, health centers and by government agencies across the United States.

The pilot program was proposed to district administrators and the board of trustees after Carney and two social workers, Tod Gunter and Gay Miremont, researched screening programs available and selected TeenScreen as the "most comprehensive." Gunter is social worker at the middle school and Miremont is clinical social worker and community outreach coordinator for St. Luke's Center for Community Health in Hailey.

Carney, Gunter and Miremont were trained in using the screening and were required to pass a test before being sanctioned by TeenScreen to implement the program.

Carney said signs of emotional or mental problems can sometimes be identified by behavior, but in some students the problems are more difficult to detect.

"A lot of students don't outwardly show signs," said Carney. "This is going to catch kids that normally wouldn't come to our awareness."

The screening procedure has four basic steps. First, parental and student written permission is required. Carney said a student can withdraw his or her permission at any time.

Second, the student completes a written questionnaire that takes about 10 minutes. Responses to the questions are intended to identify students who might require closer evaluation.

Students next undergo a debriefing interview with one of the trained social workers. Students who don't show signs of mental ailments from their test responses are then dismissed from further screening. Students whose responses indicate a possible problem are then evaluated by a mental health professional.

No diagnosis is made, but if evaluators decide that additional testing might be needed, the parents are notified and offered assistance in obtaining outside professional care.

Carney described the screening as a "totally preventive measure."

"The purpose is to catch it early on," she said. "If you can catch it early, you can prevent it from becoming a lifelong issue."

Terry Smith:

Teen depression and suicide

Information from the National Center for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion states that more than a quarter of teenagers in Idaho will suffer from at least a two-week bout with depression in any given year. Other facts provided by the organization state that 17.1 percent will think seriously about suicide, 13.8 percent will make a plan for suicide, 8.4 percent will attempt suicide and 3.2 percent will make a suicide attempt that requires medical attention.

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