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SeattleMag reports on YES SBIRT program

Lidia Harding
Agency news Blog Press School-based
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Reposted from SeattleMag article by Hallie Golden

King County Program Aims to Help Students’ Mental Health

More and more students are stressed, depressed and even suicidal. Can a new King County program make a difference?

It’s a small but alarming statistic. Among kids ages 10–24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in King County. “We used to have a kid that we needed to hospitalize for suicidality at Seattle Children’s, maybe one kid every three months,” says David Downing, chief operating officer at Youth Eastside Services, a provider of behavioral health services in east King County. “Now, it’s not unusual that you could have three kids in a week.”

At a national level, there are other concerning signs. Depression and anxiety are increasingly showing up in students, including middle school students, says Kevin King, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington.
“Adolescence is a developmental period where you really start to see sharp increases in the prevalence in common mental health disorders.”

And while it’s hard to know exactly why this is happening, it’s clear that between the barrage of societal changes over the past decade, economic issues, increasing income inequality and the very real possibility of a school shooting (there have been nearly 200 since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012), American youth have plenty on their minds. Now a pilot program for middle school students in the Lake Washington School District is trying to make a difference.

The Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) program—part of a King County program to expand mental health support in middle schools—kicked off last fall. Since then, hundreds of middle school students in the Lake Washington district have been given the highly specialized questionnaire asking about a wide range of topics, including sleep habits, substance abuse, suicide and the person in the community who gives them the most support.

Depending on their answers, students received follow-up questions or health advice on topics such as sleep. And while answering the 39 questions takes only about 10 minutes, crucial information has been revealed.

Of the 200 students across six middle schools who took the survey, 30 showed symptoms of anxiety, and 40 reported incidents of harassment in the past year, says Matt Gillingham, director of student services for the Lake Washington School District. But the most alarming finding was that 13 students reported having thoughts of suicide.

“We’re trying to surface things that with middle school students might be internalized, so they’re not…necessarily outwardly obvious to the adults in their lives,” says Gillingham. “So if there are concerns, we can reach and connect with the kids earlier before that becomes problematic for the youth.”

The findings were reviewed immediately by counselors from the individual schools and by Youth Eastside Services, a partner in this program at the Lake Washington district, and counselors took immediate action for those students at risk for suicide.

There are 12 school districts in King County participating in SBIRT screening programs like this one, and at least half of those districts officially kicked off implementation in the fall. Although the program is still in the pilot stage, Margaret Soukup, the school-based SBIRT program manager for King County, says they expect more schools to start implementing it at a universal level in the next year.

The program is designed to provide schools with more information about their student body—from their challenges to their successes—while also giving students an outlet for reporting what they’re going through so they can get the help they may need.

School counselors have found the screening to be helpful when it comes to connecting with students and identifying those who may need extra help, says Soukup. “It’s been really important for the adults in the schools, and [for] students to actually feel like, ‘I’m seen, people know who I am, I’m not just a shadow in the school.’”

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Read more about YES’ implementation of the SBIRT program.

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