July, 20 2018

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Tests Can Help Curb Suicide In Teens

Schools check for blurry vision and bad hearing. Why not screen for suicidal thoughts?
Place a student in front of a computer to answer a series of 30 personal questions. Cull through the answers for signs of depression or a tendency toward drug and alcohol abuse. Send for help if the hopelessness shows signs of becoming deadly.

This is what David Shern has envisioned for Hillsborough and Pinellas county students. Most suicides are preventable, Shern says, but TROUBLED TEENS do not always cry out for help.

``The vast majority of students who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness,'' said Shern, dean of the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida.

School leaders agree, and some parents like the idea. But many are wary of Shern's tools.

Are the questions too intrusive? How will students respond to the news they may hear? Who will provide the help they need?

Hillsborough County school administrators say they are unsatisfied with the answers to those questions and have rejected Shern's push to adopt TeenScreen, the PROGRAM developed by New York's Columbia University that tests young people and, if appropriate, refers them for TREATMENT.

The Pinellas County School Board today will talk about changing its policy, which prohibits administering a survey such as TeenScreen. Some board members have concerns about doing that and are uneasy about screening students for emotional problems.

The Pinellas board has received more than 700 e-mail messages, most of them from members of the Church of Scientology, expressing bitter opposition to TeenScreen. Church members loathe psychiatry and psychology and maintain that all parents should worry about exposing students to such testing.

Critics are confused about the PROGRAM, Shern said. The test requires parental and student consent. Columbia University pays for the pilot program, and local health centers would treat the uninsured.

That, however, may not be enough, he said. Schools must overcome the stigma of talking about suicide.

``If we were screening for diabetes, I don't think there would be this level of resistance,'' he said.

A Proposal

Shern approached local school leaders about a year ago to propose pilot TeenScreen programs in one Tampa high school and one St. Petersburg high school.

Although the PROGRAM assesses a TEEN's general mental health, Shern underscored the risk of suicide, the third leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds in Hillsborough County in 2002, and the second leading cause of death among Pinellas teens.

Shern met with Hillsborough school administrators for months, touting the PROGRAM.

The pilot PROGRAM, created by one of the nation's elite universities and used in 41 states, would cost the district nothing. It carries the endorsement of President Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and Gov. Jeb Bush's Suicide Prevention Initiative. Tampa's Northside Mental Health Center agreed to help the young people found to be most at risk, even the uninsured.

No deal.

District leaders like the PROGRAM but question how it would work, said Gwen Luney, assistant superintendent of student services and federal PROGRAMS.

They wanted to know how long Northside Mental Health Center would treat uninsured students. Students feel up one day, down the next. Would they falsely be labeled suicidal?

Pinellas Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he will not seek answers to such questions until his board decides whether to alter its policy prohibiting surveys that identify students. The information still would be confidential.

Board members will discuss only the policy change today, but many have offered their opinion of TeenScreen.

``I'm still asking questions every time we talk about it,'' board member Jane Gallucci said. ``But it has a lot of positive features to it.''

Board Chairwoman Nancy Bostock called the PROGRAM ``an intrusion for our students.'' False labels could embarrass students and cause turmoil at home. ``We could seriously do more harm than good,'' she said.

Shern points to districts that use TeenScreen and reported success in identifying students who need help. The City of Erie School District in Pennsylvania last year expanded the PROGRAM from one high school to all high schools. Of 803 students who took the test, 65 said they thought about suicide, and nearly 30 admitted they had tried killing themselves in the last year, said Christine Chrostowski, an Erie mental-health specialist.

Mixed Perceptions

Some parents want more information but say the PROGRAM may help TEENS who fail to seek help themselves.

``There's so many pressures out there that, sometimes, we don't see what's right in front of us,'' said Cheryl Good, whose daughter attends Clearwater High School. ``This might be a helpful tool.''

Labels, though, have jolted students in other states. When Cheslea Rhoades took the test at her Osceola, Ind., high school last month, a clinician told her she demonstrated social anxiety and obsessive- compulsive tendencies.

She was stunned. So was her mom.

``My daughter is an honor- roll student. She's in five clubs. There's nothing wrong with this kid,'' said Teresa Rhoades, Chelsea's mother.

Representatives of the Church of Scientology met with Wilcox in December to discuss their concerns, followed by the e-mail barrage.

Ben Shaw, a church spokesman, said there is no organized campaign to dissuade the school board. There are 12,000 church members in the Tampa Bay area, he said, and many of them have children in public schools.

The church teaches that psychiatry and psychology are abominations. Members accuse TeenScreen founder David Shaffer of Columbia University of pushing children toward the drugs made by companies he advises.

TeenScreen endorses no TREATMENT plan, Shern said. If TEENS show problems, a therapist or psychologist interviews them further. If the problem is serious, parents are given options for HELP. If students show no problems, their answers are destroyed.

Columbia University can pay for pilot PROGRAMS through financial donations, Shern said. No drug companies pay Columbia any money, according to TeenScreen's Web site. The university will not disclose donors' names.

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