Scientific American has this article about TeenScreen, a new “national mental health and suicide risk screening program…” for teenagers.

Past studies have revealed that parents do not know of suicide attempts 90 percent of the time. In fact, roughly one third to two thirds of suicidal teens do not reveal past attempts to anyone.

Teens with mental disorders are at even greater risk—roughly 90 percent of teens who died by suicide had a psychiatric illness at the time of their deaths, according to research by child psychologist David Shaffer at Columbia University. Nearly two thirds of youth who die by suicide exhibit psychiatric symptoms for more than a year beforehand, which makes this time a significant window for potential intervention.

Flynn is now executive director of TeenScreen, a national mental health and suicide risk screening program based on Shaffer’s research. In 2005 the program screened more than 55,000 teens at 460 sites in 42 states and they hope to have exceeded 500 sites by the end of 2006. “The idea is to identify risks early to prevent tragedies,” Flynn says. “It’s amazing when kids who are really struggling and don’t know why then learn what’s going on and that there are things that can help.”

Keep in mind that this screening program is not mandatory. Given this, I’m a bit surprised at the controversy that TeenScreen has caused. The article mentions a number of critics — including Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) — although none are directly quoted in any detail. It speaks volumes to note that some people are actually opposed to mental health screening. Yes, opposed to it. What good could possibly come from opposing something as potentially beneficial as a simple mental health screening? From my standpoint, the only thing one could possibly gain is denial. Although attitudes are changing, much of our society still ostracizes and stigmatizes people with mental/emotional problems. It’s a damn shame.

Of course there will always be a debate on the details of such screenings, and such debate is both necessary and critical to the program’s success; but forthright opposition to screening makes no sense to me. If a teen is feeling suicidal, then it is crucial that he or she receive treatment as soon as possible. Some people want to pretend that depression is something that happens only to weak people, the ones who take medications they don’t need and whine to psychiatrists. But this cultural construct is bullshit and it’s high time that our society recognizes mental illnesses as potentially affecting everyone, even those who routinely deny their own weaknesses.

Would you oppose a screening for diabetes? What about scoliosis screenings? Hearing and vision screenings? The only difference between these common screenings and mental health screening is the social stigma attached to mental illness. That’s it.

I fully understand the concerns about pharmaceutical companies pushing anti-depressants onto teens and pre-teen children. Anti-depressants are greatly abused in the United States and other Western countries, especially when it comes to children. But medication is not the only approach to healing emotional pain, and some treatment is better than no treatment, whether or not medication is a part of that treatment. Denying the problem will not make it go away.

Visit the TeenScreen website for more on the program.

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