School-based screenings for mental health problems help identify and reach at-risk adolescents, according to a new study conducted by New York researchers.

Published in the upcoming September issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and directed by the TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University, the research was conducted to determine the effectiveness of mental health screenings in identifying and connecting at-risk youth with school and community-wide mental health services.

Assessing High School Freshmen

Researchers offered free screening to 4,509 freshman students at six public high schools in suburban Wisconsin between 2005 and 2009. The screening involved having participants complete the Diagnostic Predictive Scales-8, a brief, self-reported questionnaire designed to identify depression, anxiety and other mental health illnesses.

Nearly 2,500 teens completed the questionnaires, each receiving a personal debriefing afterword. Trained mental-health providers further evaluated students whose questionnaires revealed potential problems to determine intervention needs.

Those identified as less severe due to lower rates of suicide thoughts and self-injury attempts were referred to mental health services on campus, while more serious cases were given referrals within the community. Specifically, 74% received school referrals, while 57.3% were directed to community programs.

Alarming Number of Students Need Help

Of the 19.6 % identified as at-risk, nearly three out of four of them were not in treatment at the time of the screening. Because of the screening and referrals offered, by the 90 day follow-up period, a sizable majority—76.3%--attended at least one private meeting with a mental-health provider; 56.3% completed what the team considered adequate minimal treatment, which consisted of at least three visits with a professional or less if deemed appropriate by the provider.

The team concluded that school-wide screenings are useful in identifying teens' mental health problems and connecting them to professional help, though they acknowledged that youth access to community-based services is logistically challenging with more coordination and planning necessary.

TeenScreen executive director, Laurie Flynn, noted that the findings reinforce the program's effectiveness in reaching youth with mental health issues. Study author Leslie McGuire, MSW, and the program's deputy executive director stated that the results highlight TeenScreen's success in identifying at-risk adolescents who would otherwise go unnoticed and untreated.

Recognizing that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and that 50% of all lifetime psychiatric disorders begin at 14, experts agree that early detection and intervention is critical. Adolescent depression and anxiety are often linked, with both disorders tied to poor school performance, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, violence and criminal behavior. While treatable through psychotherapy, medications or both, only a small percentage of those teens suffering from emotional illnesses or psychiatric episodes receive treatment.

TeenScreen focuses on improving youth access to mental health services by encouraging routine screenings through schools, community-based locations and primary care providers. Affiliated with the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University, the program was founded in 1990 and has programs in 46 states. The non-profit organization also conducts advocacy to improve access to mental health services for teens throughout the nation.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: August 27, 2016