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Teens screened for mental health

School, health district officials hope to steer youths away from self-destructive behavior.

For three years, Leigh Manheim has canvassed tirelessly for a way to identify high school teens who harbor suicidal thoughts.

Today – as Bainbridge High School becomes the first school in Kitsap County to offer TeenScreen, a program designed to help prevent suicides and identify other mental health concerns in teens – she is happy the community has achieved that goal.

“Leigh’s insistence and the support of the school board, the high school, Kitsap health district and Kitsap Mental Health made this possible,” said Clayton Mork, assistant superintendent of Instructional Support Services for the Bainbridge Island School District.

“I am so pleased that this is taking place. A lot of good things have come from it.”

Developed at Columbia University, TeenScreen is a voluntary survey that indicates “the likelihood that a teen is at risk for suicide or may be suffering from another mental disorder, such as general anxiety, manic depression, eating disorders or obsessive compulsive behavior,” said Kelly Chatwood, whose position as the Kitsap County Health District’s Suicide Prevention Coordinator was established by Dr. Scott Lindquist, Kitsap Health District director.

The survey is being given through Jan. 18 to approximately two-thirds of the roughly 150 ninth-grade students taking health classes at BHS.

Beforehand, the process was explained to all the students, who also were told their parents might be informed of the results. Parents had to consent to their students’ participation and the students had to agree as well.

The university suggests schools start with ninth-graders to “pick up keys as an early intervention,” Chatwood said.

TeenScreen is a national program that has 10 years of research behind it and funding from private foundations, individuals and organizations.

It is not, Chatwood emphasized, a substitute for a clinical evaluation.

“It’s not diagnostic. It’s up to the parents to decide what happens next,” if their students’ results indicate warning signs, she said.

Bainbridge High School was chosen “mostly because they have the resources,” Chatwood said.

““Parents were very much involved and the school board was very enthusiastic about the program and very helpful.”

Manheim and her husband, Jonathan, originally brought the idea of TeenScreen to Mork. The Manheims’ 16-year-old son, Garth, committed suicide in 2001.

Garth was “one of those silent sufferers,” Leigh Manheim said, “getting good grades, playing tennis, going to the gym...and suddenly he was dead.”

“The parents asked the school district to join them in trying to find ways to prevent this tragedy from happening to other student families,” Mork said. “It has great promise. We’ll be evaluating it as we go along.”

Getting TeenScreen going in Kitsap County has been a collaborative, volunteer effort.

The health district is giving Chatwood’s time and the Bainbridge Therapist Guild is providing its services.

“We needed a lot of clinicians to conduct the screenings,” Chatwood said.

BHS students are taking 100-minute class periods to complete the computerized version of the survey, which makes them the most comfortable and produces immediate results. Surveys are “scored” right away and then each student is seen by a clinician.

“We don’t stigmatize,” Chatwood said. “Either they are debriefed or they go into a clinical evaluation.”

According to the TeenScreen website, “approximately 750,000 teens in the U.S. suffer from depression – some so severely it leads to suicides, the third leading cause of teenage death.”

Suicide is one of the largest public health problems in Kitsap County, said Lindquist, who called TeenScreen “a proven prevention strategy for recognizing mental illness and preventing suicide.”

The goal “is to make voluntary mental health checkups available for all teens,” Chatwood said. “We’re hoping this is a pilot and (we can) do it next semester.”

The program is meant for middle and high school students, up to age 18.

Chatwood would like to see the survey given to students every other year. Whether it is will depend on whether people think it’s useful and if the students endorse it.

“Unfortunately, we won’t be able to wipe out teen suicides completely,” Leigh Manheim said. “But at least we can reduce the numbers.”

Mork attended the first survey group on Tuesday.

“The students were quiet and attentive and taking it seriously, just as we had hoped,” he said, adding they did not seem ill at ease at all. “As (TeenScreen) catches on, we anticipate more support,” Mork said. “I truly believe it is going to save lives in the long run.”

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