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Making mental health a regular part of teen checkups

March 6, 2009
by David Raths
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TeenScreen launches its latest initiative

Although 11% of young Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder that causes impairment, only 20% of these youths receive mental health services, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Leaders of the recently launched TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University are working with schools, primary care physicians, and policy makers to ensure mental health checkups are more routine.

“We do a good job of giving physical checkups, but we don’t ask about mental health, despite the fact that we know the problems can begin at a very early age,” explains Laurie Flynn, the National Center’s executive director.

TeenScreen itself isn’t new. It began in the early 1990s with a brief questionnaire that asks teens about symptoms of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thinking to help health professionals determine if they should be referred for further assessment and care. In 2003, its developers created an initiative called TeenScreen Schools and Communities to work with school districts nationwide to screen students. That project has grown to 500 sites in 43 states.

Now with a four-year, $12 million commitment from the Carmel Hill Fund to launch the National Center, TeenScreen has turned its attention to working with managed care organizations and physician groups to make mental health a part of primary care checkups. Organizations such as Kaiser Permanente are developing reimbursement mechanisms for mental health checkups, notes Leslie McGuire, MSW, the National Center’s deputy executive director.

“We are seeing some very promising results,” McGuire adds, “and finding that the key to identifying and getting kids into clinics for further evaluation is that linkage to their primary care provider.”

Flynn stresses the important role of community mental health providers in screening teens. In fact, many of the school-based TeenScreen programs are run by community mental health centers, either on behalf of or in conjunction with school systems.

The National Center also is involved in policy issues. It has teamed up with several mental health organizations on CheckUpNow, a campaign calling on elected officials to endorse mental health checkups for every young American. On March 19, the group is taking part in a Capitol Hill meeting hosted by Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office to brief lawmakers and their staffs. Physicians who perform mental health checkups will provide their perspectives.

David Raths is a freelance writer.