There are so many stories both on the Internet and in print that describe a teen who committed suicide, or even worse – homicide, and later it came out that the teen was depressed or had some form of mental illness.
Perhaps that’s why Dr. Douglas Jacobs began screening for depression in 1991. His description for starting his nationally known non-profit goes like this:
In 1991, I had the idea to begin screening for depression much like my colleagues in the medical field were screening for physical diseases like cancer and diabetes. It’s important that we screen for mental illness because it allows us to identify these illnesses early on—making treatment more effective.”
The organization provides mental health screenings at colleges, middle schools, high schools, community organizations, workplaces, and within a military community. There are even online screenings if a teen wanted to take initiative in learning more about his or her psychological well being.
Some schools throughout Baltimore and Chicago also do their own extensive screening of their students as early as in kindergarten. Students fill out short questionnaires, such as in Minnesota where they answer anonymous surveys about drug use and depression.
For the other states, screenings for mental illness has been a recommendation by federal health officials for over a decade. However, it is still not mandatory. Despite the fact that there are schools that do screen for mental health concerns, there is no consistency that takes place among all schools, what age they screen for, and what type of illness they screen.
Clearly, screening would be a good idea, as it is for physical health concerns. Schools often screen for infectious diseases, but not for common behavioral disorders that can be costly to the student, parents, and to the community, as seen in school shootings. Some students eventually find their way to the services they need.
Despite the clear benefits to screening students, there are some cons that keep the process from happening. Some school administrators and parents are afraid that there will be over-diagnosis of students as well as giving them life-long labels that they will have to bear. Another significant concern of many is the fear that school screenings will uncover illnesses in their students that they do not have the financial resources to treat.
In fact, there are all sorts of problems that arise with school screenings. There are false positives – students who appear to have a problem but don’t. There are also the inability of schools to provide certain accommodations for students, financial or otherwise, to prevent their diagnosis from getting in the way of their learning. And lastly, some parents simply do not want their children treated despite a screening that pointed to a psychological disorder. The most common reason behind this is the fear that experts only want to medicate the problem rather than providing educational support.
Outside of the school system, however, organizations like Screening for Mental Health (SMH) are having positive effects on the communities they reach. Communities are responding well to the services that SMH provides, which are facilitating healthy minds and hearts in adults and teens alike. In fact, anyone can read about SMH in The New York Times, The Eagle Tribune, the Concord Monitor, and in Social Work Today.
The danger of not being able to identify or properly treat adolescents who are depressed is that depression that goes untreated only gets worse. And one of the largest obstacles to getting treatment for teens is the stigma that depression and other forms of mental illness carry. For this reason, SMH is also working to remove the shame that frequently comes with having a mental illness. They’re doing this by having events such as National Depression Screening Day on October 9th of every year along with National Alcohol Screening Day and National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
Removing the stigma of depression and other forms of mental illness can help teens get the support they need from trusted mental health professionals. And this alone can save their lives as well as the lives of others.