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The Importance of Mental Health Screening for Adolescents 

mental health screenings for teenagers

Are you considering a mental health screening for your child? Or, are you considering implementing mental health screenings in part with your practice or curriculum? In this guide, we discuss why mental health screenings are becoming increasingly important for children and adolescents. 

In the United States, about 1 in every 6 youth struggle with a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. The most common conditions affecting children are ADHD, anxiety, behavior problems, and depression. Among adolescents, the highest-level concerns are depression, suicide, and substance use. 

Unfortunately, only about half of affected children receive mental health treatment services. And as a result, we must ask ourselves: Why? 

For some, there could be barriers to treatment. For example, some youth (as well as parents) are scared to ask for or even receive help, due to the social stigma around mental illness. Some families may face financial hurdles, preventing them from getting professional help. Sometimes, however, it is because mental illness often goes undetected or unaddressed in young people. And that is our focus today. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that 50 percent of mental illnesses begin by age 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24. However, there is a big between when symptoms begin and when treatment is received. Specifically, the average delay between the initial symptoms of a mental illness, and receiving treatment, is a notable 11 years. 

When a young person struggles silently with a mental illness, without receiving help, there is increased risk for other problems down the road. For example, youth with mental or behavioral health concerns are three times more likely to repeat a grade in school. They are also at increased risk for developing a substance use disorder, chronic health conditions, and other mental health problems. 

This is all to say that early detection of mental health disorders is critical to the health and well-being of our children. This is where mental health screenings for youth come into play. 

What is a Mental Health Screening? 

A mental health screening is a formal examination of a person’s emotional health, conducted by a clinical professional. These screenings help to determine if an individual is struggling with a mental health disorder. Mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. 

Mental health screenings are necessary in the diagnosis of mental illness. Screenings can be conducted by a licensed clinical professional, such as a primary care provider (PCP) or a licensed mental health counselor. During this examination, the clinician will ask questions about the patient’s moods, feelings, behaviors, and assess for any physical symptoms, too. 

For parents who are concerned about their child’s well-being, you can contact your family doctor and request a mental health screening. They can then refer you to a treatment specialist. 

While mental health screenings are most frequently offered to people showing signs of a mental illness, they can be beneficial for any growing child or adolescent. Adolescence is the period in which most mental health conditions surface—however, the symptoms of mental illness can overlap with typical teenage behaviors. This makes it very difficult for parents to know when mental health problems exist. 

Since the pandemic, the number of adolescents facing mental health problems has increased substantially. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have climbed since 2020, with more than 1 in 3 high school students reporting poor mental health symptoms during the pandemic. This means the chance of a teen struggling with mental illness is greater than ever, and parents must take action. 

Mental health screenings are recommended for growing youth. Screenings for behavioral wellness, depression, and substance abuse are among the most important for adolescents. 

According to the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, mental health screening is important. She writes, “Earlier this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that primary care physicians screen all adult and adolescent patients for depression, given its low cost and potential for benefit. Screening for mental health conditions needs to become part of standard practice.” 

The Benefits of Mental Health Screening for All Adolescents 

Mental health screenings are important, beginning at a young age, for a variety of reasons.  

  1. Screenings help to diagnose emerging mental health conditions. 

The most obvious benefit of mental health screenings for adolescents is that they allow for awareness. Children and teenagers who are struggling with difficult symptoms can be diagnosed and finally put a name to their condition. A diagnosis can normalize the negative feelings they were facing, and help them develop a better understanding of themselves. More importantly, it can set the stage for how they can improve, giving them the resources and information needed to get proper treatment and support. 

  1. Screenings increase the likelihood of recovery and prevent other health issues. 

Early intervention can make an incredible difference in recovery outcomes. When a mental health screening detects issues in a young person, it allows the patient and provider to address it right away. There is less time for symptoms to get worse, which prevents pain in patients, stress in families, and which makes treatment easier, too. According to Mental Health First Aid, studies have shown that early implementation of proper treatment makes complete recovery from a mental health problem attainable.  

  1. Mental health screenings allow clinicians to personalize treatment to patients’ unique needs. 

Mental health screenings provide specific insight into how a person is feeling, behaving, and perceiving the world. It provides insight into the physical symptoms they may be experiencing as a result of their mental health disorder, as well as the emotional stress and negative thought patterns stemming from it. In other words, it gives the clinician an understanding of the holistic needs of the patient, and what they need to recover. Clinicians and mental health treatment providers can create personalized health intervention plans according to the specific risk factors faced by the patient, as well as their specific symptoms and illness stage. Personalized mental health treatment is always recommended. 

It’s also important to note that mental health screenings are not solely used to diagnose mental illness, but also to evaluate it and guide treatment plans. For example, if your teen is already seeing a therapist, a mental health screening may be conducted to help guide or update their treatment over the years. As needs evolve and people grow, screenings should be evaluated. 

  1. Mental health screenings can pave the way for important conversations. 

Mental health screenings are important in that they can detect and assess mental health disorders in youth. However, not all youth will screen for a mental illness. For those who have a screen within normal limits, there is still the opportunity to talk about mental health. The answers youth provide during a mental health screening can also serve as a starting point to discuss more sensitive topics with children and teens, in an age-appropriate manner. 

For example, some teens may report that they have drank alcohol or tried drugs. While they may not meet the diagnostic criteria for substance addiction, their answer could stimulate important conversations about drug abuse. As Dr. Nora Volkow explains, “It is possible, through screening and early intervention—including brief intervention during routine checkups—to alert people to problematic patterns of drug or alcohol use that do not (yet) meet the threshold of addiction.” 

Mental Health Screenings are On The Rise: Should You Get One? 

Mental Health America conducts screenings for youth, with screening tools even available online. In the year 2020, close to one million youth completed a screening – a 628 percent increase from 2019. 

The screening data found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, youth between the ages of 11 and 17 were found most likely to display moderate-to-severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. 91 percent scored for symptoms of depression, while 84 percent of screened adolescents scored for anxiety. 

If you have any suspicions that your teen may be struggling with their mental health, a screening can be vital to their recovery. You can prevent the symptoms of the mental illness from escalating, as well as prevent the development of other conditions in their future. Your teen may not know they are struggling, and may not know when to ask for help. A mental health screening can streamline this process, and ensure your teen gets the treatment that they deserve. 

Turnbridge is a mental health treatment provider with evidence-based programs designed for adolescents and young adults. To learn about our services, do not hesitate to call 877-581-1793. You may also explore our adolescent mental health programs online, or read more about finding the right mental health facility for your teen here.