Studying a Mental-Health Checkup for Sixth-Graders A report in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders describes a unique program that gives a complete mental-health check up as kids enter middle school.

Studying a Mental-Health Checkup for Sixth-Graders

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In Seattle, a mental health screening program is in its fifth year. Every fall since 2001, mental health professionals from the University of Washington have gone into several Seattle middle schools and provided sixth-graders with a questionnaire. Michelle Trudeau reports.


For 11- and 12-year-olds, transitioning from elementary school up to middle school can be a tough time emotionally. So researcher Ann Vander Stoep and her team from the University of Washington give preteens what the researchers call a full emotional health checkup.

Ms. ANN VANDER STOEP (University of Washington): We give every child the opportunity to tell us how they're doing, and that way we feel like we can detect distress early and intervene early.

TRUDEAU: The researchers first get written permission from parents and their children, telling parents that just as students need a physical health exam prior to going out for sports, so too children need an emotional health exam as they take on the challenges of middle school. To date, over 2,500 Seattle sixth-graders have answered the emotional health questionnaire.

Ms. VANDER STOEP: A typical question would be: `Have you felt said or miserable? Have you enjoyed your regular activities less than usual? Have you had trouble sleeping? Has your appetite changed? Do you eat more or less than usual?'

TRUDEAU: Of the 2,500 kids who were screened, 15 percent got scores indicating that they have a high level of distress, that they feel unhappy or overwhelmed by their current situation. Vander Stoep says these kids fall into three groups.

Ms. VANDER STOEP: About 30 percent, we feel, need some kind of academic support

TRUDEAU: Such as tutoring or extra help from teachers.

Ms. VANDER STOEP: With academic support, most of their distress will be relieved, that that's really the primary issue that's going on.

TRUDEAU: Then about 40 percent need social support. A school counselor or an after-school activity with peers could help alleviate their emotional distress.

Ms. VANDER STOEP: And then about 15 percent of those kids, we feel, have a mental problem that goes beyond the ability of the resources in the school to address.

TRUDEAU: Serious mental health problems such as depression or anxiety disorders. At this point, the mental health team gives parents suggestions and resources they might use to get help for their child.

The Seattle program is the only one in the country that does such universal screening of the mental health of middle school students. It costs an average of $12 per child, which is currently being paid for by research grants. But with severe depression afflicting 7 percent of all middle schoolers and 20 percent of young people by the time they reach age 18, according to the US surgeon general, school districts may consider this money well spent if the researchers can go on to show that children who have taken part in the screening do better and experience less depression later on in their teens. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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