Preventing Teen Suicide

The inventors of TeenScreen say they succeed where others have failed: preventing teenagers from killing themselves. TeenScreen doesn't involve lectures or hotlines. It doesn't even seek to educate, but simply identifies high school students at risk for depression and suicide through a computerized test.

"There is a tradition of screening for physical conditions, but none for mental illness," says David Shaffer, M.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University in New York, and developer of the program. "There are really effective screens for depression, and if you identify those teens at high risk then you can refer them to treatment right away."

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TeenScreen consists of tests and interviews designed to sift through large groups of adolescents. Test results are not shared with teachers. Along with the mental health advocacy group Positive Action for Teen Health (PATH), the program has launched a plan to screen nearly every teen in the United States and refer those at risk to treatment.

The program was developed after Shaffer and colleagues reviewed more than 100 suicide cases and found that in 90 percent of them, signs of mental illness had gone unnoticed. Schaffer's group also conducted their own studies on teen behavior and found that many prevention programs make at-risk youth more distressed, and in essence spell out how suicide could be a viable escape from their problems.

"TeenScreen's approach to treatment is one that many school professionals are hungry for," says Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the child and adolescent action committee of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

Other researchers don't want to rush to rule out current methods of preventing suicide, the third-leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24. John Kalafat, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and president of the American Association of Suicidology, says his research has shown that some traditional programs, such as outreach hotlines, do succeed in helping teens overcome suicidal thoughts.

TeenScreen has pilot programs in 66 communities across the country as of this writing.

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