This fall, Youth Eastside Services (YES) and several King County school districts will introduce a universal screening for mental health and substance use risk factors to local middle school students.
According to the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey, King County’s suicide rate has increased by about 18 percent in the last decade while substance abuse rate has held steady.
Through the Best Starts for Kids initiative, the Check Yourself Tool will begin screening seventh grade students for mental health and substance use risk factors in Bellevue School District and Lake Washington School District middle schools. Other King County school districts, including Mercer Island School District, are either considering implementing it or are in some phase of implementing it in the future.
The Check Yourself Tool is based off of research from Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington and has been adapted for this specific project. The goal of the tool is to take a proactive approach to preventing youth mental health and substance use issues. The research-based program is called SBIRT, or Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Services.
The tool is a HIPPA compliant, interactive, web-based survey that collects individual student data and provides them with instant personalized feedback about mental health behaviors. The survey will be administered in seventh grade health classes and would take students approximately five to 10 minutes to complete.
“By doing this, we’re hoping to find kids that we’re missing more. Kids are missed a lot, they look OK on the outside but they’re not,” YES COO, David Downing, said. “Last year we had a number of completed suicides in the greater Eastside and they weren’t kids people would traditionally call up in their head and think of being at risk. The screener will help us find kids that are less obvious and get them the help they need before something happens.”
The survey contains a series of questions that cover four main areas: strengths (goals, supportive relationships and school connectedness); substance use (use in the past year and frequency of use); mental health (anxiety, PTSD symptoms, and self-harm thoughts); and safety (harassment, feeling safe at school, and context at home).
The screening questions are designed to determine whether the student may need additional support and to provide information to help an interventionist start a conversation with the student. Based upon the student’s results, they will be classified into one of three “tiers.”
Students in tier one demonstrate very low risk for mental health issues and substance use and will not require additional services other than what the school already provides.
Students in tier two demonstrate a need for low-grade intervention will be connected to a YES Family Community Connector and may be matched to a YES SUCCESS mentor and/or be connected to a positive social function of the school.
“It’s really thinking about how to support that kid in getting what they need at an earlier phase, so that’s the prevention part of it,” Downing said.
Students in tier three demonstrate a high need for immediate intervention and will be referred to YES counseling services. Students who screen out as very high risk will receive an evaluation either the same day or the next day.
“We’ll have an expert specialist in each of the districts and those are master’s level, dually certified clinicians that are licensed mental health and chemical dependency specialists. We will work with that young person and their family to connect them to ongoing help,” Downing said.
The survey will not be administered to all seventh grade students on the same day in both districts. It will be strategically spaced out dependent on individual schools and their readiness to implement the survey, but all middle schools in LWSD and BSD will administer the survey.
“We want to evolve it in a way that’s not going to overwhelm our ability to respond to student needs…We’ll probably do a school a week and then have a gap week afterward in order to be able to respond and provide the help in connecting kids to services,” Downing said.
The Check Yourself Tool is in a pilot phase and will be funded through the Best Starts for Kids for the next three years. Downing hopes the survey will expand to multiple grades and an increase in staffing will take place. YES is currently filing an active active assessment for federal funding so the survey, if it proves beneficial, will be able to continue after the three years.
“There’s a lot of things that are impacting kids today that are really driving the issues that we’re seeing around mental health, so finding ways for us to have ways to intervene with kids earlier and find kids that are at higher risk is just so critically important,” Downing said. “It’s important that folks understand that this is part of the overall web of looking at the bigger issue of community health issues around kids and mental health.”