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School Mental Health Screening, Part III: Is Universal Screening the Right Choice?

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

By Dalveer Kaur, CEI Intern and John Crocker, Director of School Mental Health & Behavioral Services, Methuen Public Schools This is the third part of the special series School Mental Health Screening.

The reopening of schools this fall has prompted a multitude of concerns about appropriate safety procedures, new learning models, and learning loss. As students return from an extended period of separation from friends, family, and community, there will also be concerns relating to their mental and emotional well-being. A recent study found that children and adolescents are “more likely to experience high rates of depression and probably anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends” (Loades et al., 2020, p. 2). This has implications for school-based mental-health screenings when schools reopen this fall.

How Can Screening Help?

While all students stand to benefit from mental wellness programs, many will need additional mental health services when they return to school. According to an ACLU survey of students in California, more than half of the 653 students (in 49 districts) reported that they have been in need of mental health support since mid-March, including those who have had limited to no access to services since schools closed (Youth Liberty Squad, 2020). Early screening and identification of potential issues may be essential first steps in tackling mental health concerns such as depression and trauma responses that can’t be addressed by universal programming. In particular, early screening can lead to opportunities for preventative support and intervention for at-risk students. Because they tend to be brief, screening tools can be administered more than once to monitor students’ mental and emotional health across the school year. Read more about the benefits of these assessments in the first part of our blog series on universal screening.

How Can Schools Prepare for Schoolwide Screening?

Before deciding whether or not universal screening is right for your school or district, develop an action plan. If your school mental health support team doesn’t have the capacity to analyze data and provide tier-based interventions, universal screening may not be the right choice for your school community. Action plans designed to implement screening account for a number of key considerations, namely:

  1. Teaming to support screening

  2. Generating buy-in from school and community stakeholders

  3. Selection of the population to screen

  4. Selection of a screening measure

  5. Design and adoption of consent procedures

  6. Planning for the administration of screening

  7. Data collection, analysis, and warehousing considerations

  8. Conducting a coordinated follow up to address the needs of identified students.

The necessity of a well-balanced, action-oriented, and well-resourced team is critical in all stages of the screening process. Multiple perspectives that can contribute to the action plan during each phase of implementation are essential, especially when considering that this practice will have an important and significant impact on the larger school community.

When schools ensure that they can provide the services needed based on the information gathered through the screening process, they can effectively address mental health challenges (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2019). Clear goals inform the process of successful schoolwide screening. If your school’s mental health support staff does not have the capacity or resources to provide individualized support to students who are in mental health crisis, their time and energy may be better spent providing universal social emotional programming to the entire school population to address grief, stress, and mental health challenges.

To further support student mental health, planning for data collection and warehousing occurs prior to implementation of screening. Whether a team is using physical copies of a measure or a web-based tool to administer a screener, the data must be housed in a secure location to ensure it is kept confidential and accessible only to staff who will be directly involved in follow up and care coordination. Other considerations for implementation, such as obtaining parental consent, are addressed in the second part of our blog series.

Stay tuned for more information about specific screeners to use this fall.

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