Article reference:

TeenScreen-New program focuses on fifth and ninth-graders

The Post Standard
Syracuse, New York
Mental health awareness
January 14, 2007
By Rebecca James

Every fifth-grader and ninth-grader in Cortland County if their parents give permission will be screened for mental health problems in a program that starts this month.

The screening, expected to be repeated annually, is part of an effort by local and state health officials to draw more attention to the importance of mental health treatment.

"We want to raise awareness that mental health issues are in essence no different than other physical issues, such as heart disease," said Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of youth services development for Cortland County Mental Health. "It's not a personality flaw. It's nothing to be ashamed of."

The screening will start in late January in the McGraw schools and will take place in other schools around the county during the rest of the year. All children in foster care, of any age, will also be screened.

Fifth-graders were targeted because that is the age when signs often develop of conduct disorders, emotional and behavioral problems that may be characterized by aggression toward people or animals, destruction of property or stealing.

"Ninth grade we chose because research has shown that around this time you can see the signs of emotional issues and suicidal" thoughts, Lloyd-Lester said. "Early intervention is important."
The screening process takes about 15 minutes and can be done on a computer or paper. It involves answering a series of yes-and-no questions.

Mental illness and emotional problems among youth are a growing concern nationally. Here are findings from the National Institute of Mental Health:

Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14. But there are often long delays - sometimes decades - between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek treatment.

One in 10 children suffers from a mental disorder severe enough to cause impairment. Those include autism, depression and bipolar disorder.

One in 20 children, an estimated 2.7 million nationally, has emotional or behavioral difficulties that may interfere with learning, forming friendships and family life, according to a 2005 survey. Thirty-five percent of those parents had not sought help with the problem.

Meanwhile, the mental health clinic has struggled to keep up with an increasing caseload as it also has a staff shortage. Both adults and children sometimes have to wait more than 70 days to get treatment, said Michael Kilmer, director of administrative services for Cortland County Mental Health.

A new state initiative, Child and Family Clinic-Plus, aims to double the capacity of mental health clinics in the state and to screen 400,000 children annually.

Cortland County Mental Health will get about $8,300 toward its screening costs and a stipend of $50 for each new child who comes into the clinic. That money will help fund two new positions in the children's clinic.

The estimate is that 10 percent of the 1,000 children screened will be referred to the county clinic or other providers for further evaluation, Kilmer said.

The clinic has one vacancy among its three full-time children's clinicians, which has made the waiting list longer. The clinic also is recruiting for a psychiatrist who specializes in treating children, Kilmer said.

More expertise is critical because more children are being diagnosed with problems, he said.

"We're seeing more and more of those children that the primary care physician doesn't want to treat because they are not trained to meet those needs," Kilmer said.

Letters to the editor: