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Teen test identifies at-risk students

| Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Ken Kaleida envisions a day when suicidal tendencies and potential mental illnesses are identified with a test in school, much like hearing or vision tests now.

The director of Outreach Teen and Family Services in Mt. Lebanon is overseeing the local administration of TeenScreen, a test developed at Columbia University in New York City. It's not a diagnostic tool, Kaleida cautioned, only a screening tool to identify students who might benefit from further counseling.

"There's no foolproof method," he said. "This is pretty good."

The test was borne out of research by David Schaffer, a psychology professor at Columbia. He performed "psychological autopsies" on suicide victims by talking to their friends and families to identify a mental state.

"For a long time, it was thought you couldn't tell who would do it, that it was impulsive," said Tiffany Haick, regional coordinator for TeenScreen, which could be used as early as this fall in the Washington School District in Washington County.

Kaleida said as many as 90 percent of teen suicides are preceded by some symptom up to a year in advance. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24.

At most schools, guidance counselors serve as a safety net for at-risk students, and failing grades or drug problems, for example, warrant a conference with parents. State law mandates that all school districts have some type of student assistance program for secondary students.

But while professionals can react to suicide attempts or warning signs, there are few preventative programs, Haick said.

"How do you get these kids before they are identified?" Kaleida asked.

The test, administered by computer, takes about 10 minutes and asks students about drug or alcohol use and feelings about anxiety, depression and suicide.

As many as a third of the students who take the test could exhibit some type of symptom, leading to a follow-up interview by the test administrators, Kaleida said. Of those interviewed, about half will be referred for professional help, but the family ultimately would decide whether to proceed.

Kathy Mastantuono, director of pupil personnel services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said TeenScreen poses potential privacy issues.

However, students taking the test must sign consent forms, and they are identified by number, not name, Haick said.

TeenScreen currently is administered at 110 sites in 35 states, as well as Korea, Canada, Panama and Guam, Haick said. Kaleida said, ideally, every school district in Western Pennsylvania would use it, along with local organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs. Outreach would need more funding to expand the program, he said, and while he doesn't have specifics yet he doesn't think it will be very expensive.

The Washington School District could become the first Western Pennsylvania district to use TeenScreen, largely because Outreach already provides a behavioral specialist there, and this could be a natural next step, Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said.

"We're not doing this because we see a long-standing increase" in troubled students, said DiLorenzo, adding the school board could approve the test at its meeting at 7 p.m. April 26 at Washington High School.

Additional Information:

Washington schools

Some questions in the TeenScreen test:

  • Have you missed school in the past year because you were drinking or hung over?

  • Have you ever thought about suicide?

  • Have you ever attempted suicide•

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