By Dana C. Markey, Child and Adolescent Action Center Program Manager
A recent article, “Mental health screening and follow-up care in public high schools,” in the September 2011 issue of the Journal Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recognizes screening is as a practical strategy for schools to identify and connect youth to services and supports—when they otherwise may never receive help for mental health needs.
It summarizes a study that examined 2,500 students at six public high schools who participated in mental health screening between 2005 and 2009. Nearly 20 percent were identified at risk—with 73.6 percent of that group not receiving mental health services and supports at the time of the screening.
In other words, without screening, those students most likely would have continued to struggle in silence well into adulthood where fewer than half of adults with mental health needs get help.
As an advocate, and especially, as a young adult who struggled in high school, it comes to no surprise to me that such an alarming number of youth with mental health needs are not receiving treatment.
When I began my freshman year of high school, I was struggling to overcome a traumatic childhood. Often I was plagued with feelings of guilt, shame, self-hatred and sadness, which often triggered debilitating bouts of depression. In order to cope, I turned to self-injury as a way to handle the overwhelming emotions. Even so, I was extremely successful in school. My perfectionism super exceeded my desire to admit “failure” and get help. I didn’t raise any red flags and thus, didn’t get connected to any services or supports. I eventually found my own way out of my depression and self-injury. However, it came at a high cost—I lost critical developmental years of my life and had to deal with the aftermath of my destructive behaviors.
Looking back, I believe sheer luck and a fortunate amount of resiliency prevented me from becoming one of the more than 4,000 youth who die by suicide a year.
All it would have taken to help me was for one person to ask about my mental health. I would have opened up like a book. It never crossed my mind to proactively share this information, that it was okay to do so and that help was available.
Youth should not have to find their way through a difficult time alone.
As the article indicates, voluntary screening, along with a continuum of services and supports, offers schools and communities the valuable chance to catch youth who may otherwise fall through the cracks. It also provides youth with a safe zone to share concerns and the opportunity to get help if needed.
Routine, voluntary screening also sends the critical message that mental health and well-being is just as important as other major public health concerns and should be treated no differently.
If we can identify youth who need help early they can be connected to school- and community-based services and supports when they first need it—before they fail or drop out of school and before they develop more difficult-to-treat, chronic conditions and before they experience other tragic consequences of untreated mental health issues.
NAMI’s Child and Adolescent Action Center has made the early identification and intervention of youth living with mental health needs a top priority. We stand ready to support schools and communities with this important and life-saving undertaking. Together we can ensure youth going through a difficult time can get the support they need when they need it.
Believe me, I know.