Screening Youth for Depression Saves Lives

Michelle Holmberg

 Michelle Holmberg According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth ages 11 to 18 in the United States. The strongest risk factors for suicide in youth are depression and substance abuse. Alarmingly, 80 percent of youth with mental illness are not identified or receiving services.

National Depression Screening Day (NDSD), Oct. 8, is an ideal time to promote depression awareness in schools and after-school programs. Twenty-five years ago, Screening for Mental Health Inc. launched the first ever NDSD during Mental Illness Awareness Week in October. This annual, nationwide initiative seeks to connect individuals with anonymous mental health screenings and quality, local treatment options. Awareness and screening initiatives like NDSD provide an opportunity to talk to students, share educational resources and spread the word about mood disorders.

Screening youth for depression and other mental illness can be an effective way to identify problems and connect students with appropriate treatment. The SOS Signs of Suicide® Prevention Program is a school-based education and screening program that teaches students to recognize warning signs of depression and suicidality in themselves or their peers, and to seek help from a trusted adult. The SOS Program also trains school professionals, parents and community members in their role as trusted adults to identify at-risk students and take appropriate action.

The screenings within the SOS Program are informational, not diagnostic. The goal of the screening is to identify students with symptoms consistent with depression and/or suicidality and to advise a complete professional evaluation.

The SOS Program is the only school-based suicide prevention program listed on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices that addresses suicide risk while reducing attempts. In a randomized control study, the SOS Program showed a 40 percent reduction in self-reported suicide attempts.

[Related: Peer Mentoring: Youth Who Faced Mental Health Issues Now Aid Others]

The first step in preventing suicide is to identify and understand the risk factors. Mental health screening programs help increase knowledge and adaptive attitudes about depression while encouraging help-seeking. The screenings also educate students on the signs and symptoms of depression. The more students learn about depression and mental illness, the better they are able to understand the importance of seeking help. It is important to teach young people that suicide is not a normal response to stress, but rather a preventable tragedy that can occur as a result of untreated depression.

As schools work to implement mental-health screening programs, it is important that they also engage parents and school staff as partners in prevention. By raising parental awareness, parents can help watch for signs of these problems in their children and increase their confidence in seeking help when needed. Involving parents may also increase cooperation in prevention efforts and broaden community support for events like NDSD.

Parents can also participate in mental health screenings. Screening for Mental Health offers an online screening program parents can use to take a depression screening on behalf of their child. The Online Parent Brief Screen for Adolescent Depression (BSAD) allows parents to assess their child for suicide or depression risk factors. After parents complete a series of questions online, the screening provides results, local referral options (determined by each school) and relevant, educational information. Results from the Parent BSAD are not diagnostic but indicate the presence or absence of symptoms consistent with depression or suicide.

As teenagers navigate through challenging situations, it is our responsibility as trusted adults to help them traverse the transitions. Offering mental health screenings and awareness programs helps to identify those in need and connect them with treatment.

Michelle Holmberg is director of programs at Screening for Mental Health, Inc., a national nonprofit and the pioneer in large-scale mental health screenings for the public.

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