Preventing Teen Suicide

The TeenScreen program may be successful in preventing teen suicide.

By Rose Palazzolo, published on May 1, 2003 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

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."

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

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.