The Pros and Cons of Mental Health Screenings at School
Teens are vulnerable to mental illness. This is not only clear because of recent school shootings and discovering later that the perpetrators had significant diagnoses but also because adolescence inherently comes with vulnerabilities. Teens, for example, are at the most risk for depression and suicide.
For instance, The National Institute of Mental Health indicates that there are as many as 25 attempts of suicide to every one that is actually committed. Sadly, as this statistic can indicate, many teens and adults suffer from psychological disorder without even knowing it. Depression and anxiety are so common in America that having symptoms of those disorders are commonplace. It’s practically normal to feel stressed and depressed. Teens who feel sad, numb, and deadened can easily walk through his or her day without anyone asking, “Are you okay?”
Perhaps that’s why it’s easy for a teen to go unnoticed despite the malicious planning that they have going on inside. That was the case with 20-year old Adam Lanza, responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, who was obsessed with school shootings and struggled with mental illness. He had a history of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and often refused to take his medication for this illness. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by repeating thoughts and images that might cause an individual to perform the same rituals over and over again, such as washing hands, locking and unlocking doors, or counting money.
There are often red flags regarding psychological disorders that become apparent after a tragic event occurs. Although, there are many teens that experience mental illness, the psychological triggers can be noticeable, especially if those triggers are looked for, as in screenings. For instance, certain red flags to look for are when a teen there is frequent societal withdrawal, when there are changes in sleep or eating habits, and when there are changes in mood. If these become evident in an adolescent’s behavior, there’s no harm in speaking to a mental health professional. Certainly, in order to keep schools safe, reporting suspicious activity can save an entire community.
For this reason, 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. This was the case with a South Florida student whose father was diagnosed with cancer. The 15-year old boy began skipping school, yelling at teachers, and becoming violent. The principal of his school approached him and asked whether he could use some mental health treatment. Although at first the boy declined, he later saw a therapist, was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and now attends a therapy group with others suffering from depression.
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.
Nevertheless, some schools throughout Baltimore and Chicago do extensive screening of their students as early as in kindergarten. Students fill out short questionnaires, such as in Minnesota where students answer anonymous surveys about drug use and depression.
Whether there will be mandatory school screenings in the future is meant to be seen. In the meantime, however, any triggers that point to a psychological disorder in teens is worthy of investigation, in order to better and perhaps save the life of that students as well as the lives of others.
Kennedy, K. (January 13, 2014). Many Teens Struggle with Untreated Mental Illness, but School Screening Still Lacking. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on May 14, 2014 from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/13/teens-mental-health_n_4588685.html