Help for Teens Showing Signs of Mental Illness

TeenScreen connects teens to mental health resources.

When our child has a cold or sprains an ankle, we call the pediatrician. Recognizing the symptoms of a physical injury or illness and taking the steps to resolve it is a relatively straightforward process for most parents. However, when it comes to issues relating to our child’s mental health, it’s not always that easy. Recognizing the signs of depression, anxiety or eating disorders in teenagers and knowing when and where to get help can be challenging. Fortunately, the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma (MHAOK), with offices in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City, is an excellent resource offering numerous educational services, support groups and mental health advocacy. TeenScreen, a voluntary mental health screening program administered by MHAOK through area high schools, helps identify those teens who might need help and then connects them to the available mental health services.

Developed by Columbia University, TeenScreen uses a computerized questionnaire and interview process to determine if an adolescent is at risk for depression, suicide or other mental health problems. Julie Summers, a licensed clinical social worker, is the director of outreach and prevention at MHAOK. TeenScreen is one of the programs she oversees. MHAOK has been using the program for 15 years.

“TeenScreen is a computer-based screening tool that is administered to middle and high school students with parent permission,” Summers explains. If a school is interested in using TeenScreen, MHAOK works with the principal and counselors to determine which grades to screen. “Typically, it’s not the whole school,” Summers says. “At the high school level, we often screen ninth graders because that year of high school is a difficult transition. At middle schools, we often screen eighth graders for the same reason.”

Next, MHAOK staff goes into the school to speak to the students as a group. “We do some mental health education, talking with the kids a little bit about the struggles of depression and anxiety; we mention suicide prevention.” The students take home an information packet that includes a parent permission slip. “Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of any grade level at any school will choose to be screened,” Summer notes. She believes those kids who choose to be screened or whose parents encourage them to be screened “are often a self-selected group of people who are a little bit concerned about themselves or about their child.”

The completed permission slip includes a copy of the student’s schedule, so that the screening can be scheduled during a non-academic subject hour such as PE, music or art. The screeners, who are all licensed health professionals or people working on their licensure under the supervision of an on-site licensed mental health care professional, then sit down with the student to explain the process and get the student started. The screening takes about 10 to 15 minutes. “It screens for depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidality,” Summers says. She notes that the process “is a screening and not a diagnosis. It’s a quick once over to identify some red flags.”

Upon completing the screening, the screener and the student go over a printout of the results. “The screening looks not only at some key mental health concerns, but also the level of functioning and level of impairment,” Summers explains. “If there are some concerns that seem to suggest counseling might be in order, the screener talks with the students about possibilities and lets them know that the parents will also be called to let them know some possibilities.” The screener then gives the student and the parents a number of options, connecting them to mental health resources, “whatever their financial status is. If they’re insured there’s one set of options; if they’re uninsured there’s another set of resources.” MHAOK sends a letter to the parents at the end of the process detailing what they found and what referral was made.

“We don’t provide counseling services,” Summers notes. “This is not a mental health assessment in the sense that we’re diagnosing someone. We’re just helping a young person and their family flag some concerns and connect them with the services they need.”

There is no cost for the screening, which is underwritten by foundation grants and United Way.

Lauren, a high school junior, participated in TeenScreen. “I’ve had counseling before, but at the time, I didn’t feel stressed or depressed or anything, but I’m really glad I did TeenScreen,” she says of the experience. Laura, Lauren’s mom, notes that changes in the family’s home life had created a lot of stress for the entire family. In the year following her parents’ divorce, Lauren and her siblings moved with their mother into the home of their great grandparents, who have Alzheimer’s, so that Laura could help care for them. Lauran’s grandmother moved in a few years later.

“At that time I was starting a new school,” Lauren recalls. “It was still very new to me… I guess with all the transitions we’ve been through, driving, working, going to school and helping out at home, it was a lot.” Laura nods her head in agreement, “It was a lot of growing up to do in a short time.”

After participating in TeenScreen, Lauren was directed to Crystal, a counselor from CREOKS, a non-profit behavioral health services agency, who was already in place in Lauren’s high school. “I feel like I relate better to adults than I do to my peers, to teenagers” Lauren says. “Having Crystal’s help, it’s been easier for me to reconnect to my friends. It’s helped me with my family and with my relationships…It feels really good to talk to someone that’s not family or friends, that doesn’t already have her own opinion. Just to get another say in what’s going on.”

Both Lauren and Laura think TeenScreen and the counseling that followed have been a positive experience. “It doesn’t just help her,” Laura comments. “It helps us communicate…I think we talk more now. It’s helped both of us communicate and understand each other.”

“I try to use the things that I’ve learned to help me. I really try to lean on Crystal to see if I’m over exaggerating or if my anxiety is something that’s normal, or if it’s something that can be fixed,” Lauren adds.

If your school doesn’t offer TeenScreen, Summers suggests contacting MHAOK to make arrangements for a screening. “We know that if our kids are exposed to some kind of virus or flu, we’re going to keep an eye on them to see if they’re okay, and if they need some help we’re going to take them to the doctor. In the same way, we need to tend to the emotional development of our kids and they’re psychological wellbeing,” she adds.

For more information on TeenScreen and other resources available through MHAOK, visit the website at or call the referral line at 918-585-1213.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: mental health, Tweens & Teens