A spate of teenage suicides at the high school in Forest City, Iowa, prompted officials to step up their efforts to obtain mental health screenings for students.

The district began using a nationally respected program called Teen Screen for incoming freshmen six years ago. These days, about 90 percent of the ninth-graders are screened, high school counselor Rachel Rognes said.

The screening is coordinated by the United Way of North Central Iowa, based in Mason City. Andrea Mujica, the program coordinator, said the screenings are “very confidential.”

Permission slips are sent to parents, and a couple of days are set aside for the screenings each October. Students meet with mental health providers, and some are referred for continuing care. About 10 percent of the class is typically not interested in participating, Rognes said, and students can opt out of the program before the screening event.

The screenings are done in conjunction with an academic unit on mental health in the classrooms. That ties into substance use and abuse as well as related issues, Rognes said.

“Not only do we find teens with depression, who are cutting themselves, have attempted suicide or have thoughts of suicide, but we also speak with students under normal life stresses, such as breaking up with a boyfriend or who experience pressure to do well on a test,” Mujica said.

She sees the screenings as valuable, especially for teens who need to increase their coping skills.

“Those coping skills are a huge deficit for many of them,” Mujica added.

The community’s United Way agency uses a marketing approach to promote the screenings. Upperclassmen who have been screened speak to the younger students, and that’s proven to be a very effective way to get the messages across.

“They usually talk about how mental health is as important as physical health,” Mujica said.

Organizers also attend freshmen orientation sessions and town meetings to explain Teen Screen. The United Way operates the program in 15 schools in nine northern Iowa counties.

Awareness of mental health has grown in the Forest City district, said Rognes, the school counselor.

“That program is pretty well accepted and entrenched,” she said.

Scott Crane, the president of the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area, said the mental health topic is a key issue in the organization’s strategic plan. The United Way is a couple months away from honing its mental health strategy, he said.

“A lot depends on what happens on the state level,” he said, noting that the mental health of adolescents is an “incredibly complicated issue” that involves waiting lists and provider availability.

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