Manatee County schools could screen for mental illnesses

cschelle@bradenton.comApril 20, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Manatee County students could receive mental health screenings under a new proposal by Manatee Glens and schools Superintendent Rick Mills.

"We screen for vision, scoliosis, dental concerns and we screen for a lot of common concerns," said Manatee Glens President Mary Ruiz at a Manatee County Schools Superintendent CEO Roundtable on Friday. "We don't screen for mental health and addictions even

though it's very common and unidentified."

Ruiz wants that to change that by offering to train 30 Manatee County teachers through Manatee Glens over the next three months on how to identify and help students who struggle with mental health issues. Manatee Glens provides mental health and addiction recovery services in Manatee County.

Mills, overseeing his first CEO Roundtable, supports the idea and wants to charter a task force to identify funding and a strategy to implement the program. He also plans to identify specific groups to implement the various components. Under the proposal, the schools wouldn't actually diagnose a mental disorder. Staff would identify symptoms and provide a referral to Manatee Glens for services, Mills said.

A draft of the charter is expected to be presented at the next Superintendent CEO Roundtable, a meeting in which the superintendent meets with mayors, the sheriff, state's attorney and the county administrator, as well as other top officials to receive updates and discuss ideas.

Under the proposal teachers and staff will be trained to ask questions and identify potential issues.

They would then the provide appropriate resources for the student, Ruiz said. Teachers would not diagnose mental illnesses, she said, and screening results would only be shared with parents. The program was created by Mental Health First Aid USA, which is online at

Mills also wants to set up an online health, wellness and behavioral screening for all students, and have an intervention network set up within schools that would tie into a referral service.

From 1999 to 2010, 75 Manatee County teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 died from overdose or poisoning and 17 died from suicide, according to figures provided by Manatee Glens. If Ruiz had her way, screenings would be completed in third grade, middle school and ninth and 11th grades. The early detection components are because the majority of major mental illnesses develop by the time a teen reaches 14 years of age, she said.

Ruiz also wants the school system to enhance emergency response systems for youth alcohol and drug crises and increase a partnership with the Substance Abuse Coalition on the pain pill epidemic.

Ruiz doesn't have a cost estimate for the program, but a presentation made five years ago showed it would cost $200,000 to screen all ninth-graders. The school district Mills recently worked for in Minneapolis spent about $450,000 on its districtwide program, Mills said, but plans to analyze potential costs for the Manatee district.

"Yes there is a cost, but we also have a cost of law enforcement picking these kids up from schools and schools not meeting their letter grades because their students in the bottom quartile are struggling with these issues," Ruiz said. "There are other costs that are hidden within the system. That doesn't create new money, but maybe we can find a persuasive return on investment that makes that tough decision a bit easier."

In the emergency response system leg of the plan, Ruiz proposed that the sheriff's office and local law enforcement bring children to Manatee Glens for a mental health screening.

"When a sheriff finds a kid they don't want to arrest or bring to the detention center, they'll bring them back home," Ruiz said. "I would prefer that child come to Manatee Glens for an assessment. We can have a conversation with that parent. We can offer that parent support and hopefully address issues of health and wellness in that way."

Ruiz hopes that some funds could come from a federal Safe School initiative grant, providing $6 million over three years to communities across the country. That grant received Senate approval and is awaiting House approval. Getting the grant has become competitive since the Sandy Hook shootings, Ruiz said. The documented mental health issues of gunman Adam Lanza is providing new motivation impetus for mental health screenings in schools.

The shooting has also strained the number of professionals available for training as more schools are interested in implementing mental health programs.

"We do have funding secured to train 30 people, so when that training is launched, we'll be able to serve the first wave," Ruiz said. It would take at least five years to offer the training to anyone in the school district who wants it, she said.

Sheriff Brad Steube urged that parents be involved in the discussion about mental health screenings, and believes teachers already have a good handle on identifying students who have problems.

"My wife being a school teacher for over 30 years, she comes home and tells me you're going to see this kid again because most of the teachers pretty much have this already," Steube said. "So I think the training on that side would be very minimal for the teachers to recognize some of the symptoms."

Mills isn't a stranger to this type of mental health services partnership, having been a part of a similar task force in Minneapolis where he was chief executive officer of Minneapolis schools. The chartered task force allowed the partner organizations to dedicate dollars to the initiative and develop solid data, he said.

"We were getting to the point where we were tracking and monitoring data of our youth and their challenges in both wellness and juvenile detention and tying it into attendance in the schools," Mills said. One program would work with the juvenile detention centers to find students skipping school and work on improving their attendance.

"Even though mental health and addiction disorders are very, very common, one out of every five kids have a diagnosable disorder. Those kids are with all the kids. If they go undiagnosed and go untreated, they get bolder, they get sicker," Ruiz said. "Their behaviors are now being interpreted as perhaps from a law enforcement perspective, doing things that threaten public safety."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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