Universal mental health screenings in Colorado schools could be one way to address the growing problem of youth suicide.
The basic tests could function like vision and hearing screenings to alert parents and teachers to a mental health problem that needs to be referred to a specialist, said Sarah Davidon, research director for Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group. Davidon suggested the screenings last week to state senators and representatives working on education legislation.
“Mental health disorders among children do exist. ... They exist, they are serious and they need to be addressed,” she said.
One in five youths between the ages of 13 to 18 will experience a mental illness at some point, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But it’s not uncommon for patients to wait up to 10 years after the first signs of a mental illness before seeking treatment, Davidon said.
The screenings could be part of a comprehensive approach to promote mental wellness and help prevent suicide across Colorado, she said. Suicide prevention must be continuous and involve community mental health providers, she said.
“It’s not a one and done training, it’s not an assembly, it’s not a poster on the wall,” she said of suicide prevention.
In 2017, a record 1,175 Coloradans died by suicide, of which 187 were younger than 25, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In La Plata County, the community has experienced youth suicide clusters and historically high suicide rates.
In recent years, local schools, community groups, nonprofits and health agencies have started to address suicide.
For example, Signs of Suicide screenings have started at Durango School District 9-R and other schools in the region.
But implementing generalized mental health screening faces challenges. Even after students with mental health needs are identified, it can be difficult to connect them with the care they need because of a shortage of mental health providers in the region, said Royce Tranum, behavioral health services coordinator for the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services. The cooperative provides social workers and psychologists to all the school districts across a five-county region of Southwest Colorado, except Durango School District.
If universal screenings were adopted, Tranum said she would want schools to connect students with help outside school because teachers and BOCES staff cannot provide therapy, she said.
“(Teachers) want to do right by their kids, and they don’t want to step into something that they don’t know how to handle,” she said.
Anecdotally, behavioral health problems are on the rise across the region because more students are experiencing trauma and poverty, she said.
Students exposed to chronic violence and trauma may have trouble forming relationships or may find friendships inherently unsatisfying, Tranum said.
Other students with behavioral problems may find it hard to concentrate, hide under their desks or bring weapons to school, saying they need them for safety, she said.
Mental health screenings can also help teachers choose curriculum or make small adjustments to better serve students, Davidon said.
Davidon said she doesn’t believe screenings should be mandated by state law, but she wants the state to provide funding for screenings.
“We need to pay attention to children’s brains and how they are developing and how we can impact their mental health,” she said.