Teen screening key to emotional health | TheUnion.com

Teen screening key to emotional health

"I think more kids should take this test in order to find health problems and be able to treat them."

"It made me think more about my emotional state."

"I think that it is a good interview to do because talking about the way you are feeling can help in understanding not only yourself but your affect on people."

These are some of the responses from Nevada County teenagers who have taken part in a computerized teen screening program implemented at area high schools. Launched in the spring of 2013, "What's Up? Wellness Checkups" is an evidence-based suicide and depression screening tool originally developed by Columbia University's TeenScreen program.

Now administered by Stanford University, the screening has proven to be effective in identifying adolescents with emotional health challenges – many of whom may have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

Currently, program director and licensed marriage and family therapist Shellee Sepko and Jen Rhi Winders, MSW, community resource coordinator, are overseeing screening in Nevada County's high schools.

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"We've had too many students to count say to us, 'Hey, this is the first time anyone has asked me these questions,'" said Winders. "Or, 'I've never told anyone this before.' We've had students who have been feeling suicidal say those very words."

Originally targeting high school sophomores, the program is now casting a wider net by adding parental consent forms to packets distributed to incoming freshmen and new students in the Nevada Joint Union High School District and Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.

The collaborative screening program is sponsored by the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department, the Suicide Prevention Task Force, Nevada Joint Union High School District's Student Assistant Program and Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.

Although funding comes from the state, as the screening numbers and support services offered increase, funding needs expand. A GoFundMe account has been set up in an effort to help "What's Up? Wellness Checkups" reach out to more students at http://www.gofundme.com/helpourteens.

"Ethically we feel obligated to provide group services such as boys groups and mindfulness groups because we see a growing need for referral sources within the schools," said Sepko. "As the need to help teens increases, so will our funding needs. We're currently working creatively to fund raise — financial support is the key."

Since February 2013, a total of 5,161 consent forms have been sent out to parents of teens and 60 percent have given consent to have their child screened.

Of those, 857 have been identified as needing further follow-up, such as having their emotional health was assessed by staff, and receiving help with coping skills and support systems.

So far, 206 teens have been given a longer interview, including follow-up with parents or guardians, and are supported in getting the more extensive help they need. Many of these students may not have been identified had they had not participated in the screening, said Winders.

The computerized, on-site voluntary screening has brought greater success, as students are far more likely to be engaged in the process — and the results.

"'What's Up? Wellness Checkups' is not just a local initiative — it's indicative of a national movement," Winders added. "In the past, emotional health was handled separately from school. Now there is a push for integrating services to better support teens in the environment where they spend much of their lives.

There is a real need to see emotional health as part of the whole being and to bring these services directly into schools, and integrate it into a student's day."

The vision of a school climate infused with positive social-emotional learning is part of what Winders dubs an "emotion revolution," where youth are better able to gain self-awareness, balance, relationship skills — and find supportive ways to address mental health needs at an earlier age.

There is evidence that early detection of emotional health issues and the resulting "systems of care" can make a tremendous difference.

Attendance and school performance tend to rise with treatment, while expulsions and suspensions decrease.

And results appear to be even more dramatic with the introduction of a school based center that can provide on-site emotional health resources and support.

In a study published in The Journal of School Health, high school students saw a 50 percent decrease in absenteeism and a 25 percent decrease in tardiness just two months after receiving school-based emotional health services and counseling.

"As a society we don't like to talk about death — in particular suicide and emotional health issues, which can be stigmatized," said Winders.

"So part of our work in the schools and with families is to help reduce that stigma. We want to make your emotional health just as critical as your physical health — to make it a yearly screening, just like getting your vision or hearing checked."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

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