Officials hope mental health screenings will prevent school violence

Free mental health screenings could be offered in every school district in Montgomery County.

The plan to offer free, annual mental health screenings to students at all school districts in Montgomery County was in development before the Feb. 14 mass school shooting in Florida, but the tragedy has put an even bigger spotlight on the need for intervention before people get hurt, officials say.

“This is disturbing behavior and behavior we have to do something about,” said Andrea Hoff, director of prevention and early intervention for the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Board. “People continue to think that it could never happen here… and we know that that’s not true.”

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The county’s mental health board announced the screening program on Wednesday — not just to prevent school violence, but as a response to suicides, addiction and other mental health concerns involving students.

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines for diagnosing and treating depression in teens, recommending annual screenings for all children 12 and over.

The program being offered to districts by ADAMHS is called SBIRT which stand for “Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment.” It’s a system already used in health care settings, but officials think bringing it into the schools will reach more young people.

In half of all mental health cases, issues begin by age 14, Hoff said. More than 50 percent of adolescent depression cases currently do not get identified before adulthood, according to the new AAP guidelines.

“We have to talk about suicide. We have to talk about depression and alcohol and drug use,” Hoff said. “Schools are the ideal place.”

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The screenings would take place during the school year much like student vision, hearing and scoliosis screenings do now. It would be offered for middle school, junior high and high school students, and would be conducted by a professional from Samaritan Behavioral Health.

Parents would have an option to opt their child out of the screenings.

The screening involves a series of questions about mood, alcohol and drug use, suicidal thoughts and other topics. Based on their answers, a screener can identify a student as at-risk and have a conversation with them about options, including working with the family to get them further treatment and services.

Other schools that have implemented SBIRT have received honest answers from the students, officials say. Many are at the point of wanting to get help but don’t feel comfortable disclosing that to a parent or their peers.

Because the screeners are health care professionals who do not work for the school, Hoff said, students feel safe that any admission of drug or alcohol use will not get them in trouble.

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Identifying potential mental health issues is one of the many strategies being discussed throughout the country in response to school shootings like the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which killed 17 people.

In addition to the SBIRT program, the county is offering free Youth Mental Health First Aid training to teachers and school staff. Participants would become certified, much like regular first aid or CPR, to identify signs and symptoms of developing mental illness and how to respond to students in mental health crisis.

Any school interested in these programs can call ADAMHS at 937-443-0416.

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