Schools Should Be Required To Screen Teens For Depression

What is more horrifying than knowing that 84 of New Jersey's young people took their own lives between 2013 and 2015?

How about wondering if one of more of these tragedies could have been prevented if our schools had taken preventive measures to avert them?

The number of adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, according to the journal Pediatrics. Only half these teens are diagnosed before becoming adults.

As many as two in three depressed teenagers aren't getting the care they need, meaning too many grapple alone with emotional or mental illness that can cripple them. Or worse.

Now several state lawmakers are doubling down on efforts to identify these vulnerable youngsters by requiring depression screenings for public school students in grades 7 through 12.

Their bills, working their way through the state Legislature, stem from a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatricians that beginning at age 12, young people be checked annually for the condition.

State senators Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) introduced in July. Assembly members Dr. Herb Conaway and Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) and Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden and Burlington) also introduced a version in their chamber.

Thankfully, the rates of death by suicide among 10- to 24-year-olds remain consistently lower in the Garden State than in the nation overall. Nevertheless, the 2017 New Jersey Youth Suicide Report paints a grim picture of young people in anguish.

The report, published by the state Department of Children and Families in collaboration with the Department of Health, notes that the most common motivating factors are the recent death of a friend or family member, family stress, and school pressures.

Under the legislation, which we favor with a small reservation, a qualified professional would administer the screenings, taking precautions to guarantee the privacy of the student.

Schools would be required to notify the parents or guardians of any student whose screening sets off warning bells, and here is where we have an issue with the bills as they now stand.

In reality, not all teenagers live in ideal households. While the majority of parents would likely respond to the school's findings appropriately, seeking treatment for a troubled teen, some would lash out in anger or hostility, putting the child in question at even greater risk.

For that reason, when a screening raises a red flag, we'd like to see a process where a nurse or social worker schedules a counseling session with the student, designed to determine the best way forward before parental notification takes place.

We're conscious of the burdens already resting on school personnel, and this screening process admittedly would add several more. But with suicide ranking as the third-leading cause of death for New Jersey's teenagers, business as usual is not an option.

Original Article