Mental health screening urged for Manatee high school freshmen

eearl@bradenton.comFebruary 9, 2013 

BRADENTON -- All incoming high school freshmen should undergo comprehensive mental health screening, says Mary Ruiz, the president and CEO of the Mental Health and Addictions Outpatient Practice at Manatee Glens.

As she reflects upon the Sandy Hook tragedy, she says she is concerned with identifying the mental health needs of adolescents in the community.

Not unlike how schools screen for vision and hearing problems and scoliosis, ninth-graders would complete a series of tests for mental health and wellness. These tests would consist of online assessments and a brief meeting with a counselor.

During a meeting of the CEO Roundtable on Friday, Ruiz said such screenings could identify problems early and prevent illnesses like schizophrenia.

A potential drawback for this initiative is finding the money to pay for it. Ruiz said that the cost of adding the screening of ninth-graders would be around $300,000 to $400,000. This does not include the cost of training people in mental health first-aid and starting a task force in the community.

Officials said they will spend the next six months reviewing the idea and working out the details, including how it would be paid for.

"We are all collaborating in this effort," said school board Chair Karen Carpenter.

Two mental health professionals in Bradenton said the screenings might not be the most effective way of addressing potential problems.

"There are many stressors that go along with entering high school, and screening would be a nice opportunity to capture information," said Ginger Talerico, a counselor who specializes in chil

dren and adolescents at Envision Counseling Services. "However, mental health issues could occur at any time in a child's development. It is important for parents and pediatricians to know the signs and be aware."

Talerico said she had mixed feelings about making screenings mandatory for incoming freshmen.

"A one-time screening might not be effective because mental health issues are also based on environmental and social factors that screenings would not mitigate," she said.

Dr. Kylee Tuls, also of Envision, thinks that freshman year might be too late for such screenings.

"The middle school years are a critical time period for the community to take preventative measure. By high school, it is more of a reaction state than preventative," she said.

"It's my hope that the schools would be able to provide the community resources and support students with who test high for suicide or threat-to-harm need."

Ruiz also wants to see President Barack Obama's recent recommendation on mental health first-aid put into action.

"Mental health first-aid will add extra eyes and ears to keep children safe," Ruiz said.

Ruiz and the CEO Roundtable tried to assemble a task force 10 years ago, but fell short in funding.

Assistance is currently available in the community; however, Ruiz said that these services go underutilized.

Manatee Glens has a mobile crisis team available at the schools' requests. Last year, that team received around 60 calls. High school Key Clubs also participate in events and campaigns to raise awareness of mental disorders. The CEO Roundtable is comprised of community leaders such as Carpenter, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, and Dr. Jennifer Berncie Fairburn, administrator of the Manatee County Public Health Department, The Roundtable meets quarterly and is chaired by interim schools Superintendent David Gayler.

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