A smart new mental-health survey and intervention program at a number of middle schools in King County, Washington, promises to help detect and prevent teen substance abuse as well as tease out feelings of anxiety or suicidal thoughts.

The program, funded by the voter-approved initiative Best Starts for Kids and the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency Levy, is expected to reach as many as 35,000 students across the county in a dozen school districts over the next three years. It is a demonstration of good teen mental-health services as well as a stark example of how extra tax money can help school districts do more than the basics for their students.

Over the next three years, $12.6 million in local tax dollars beyond regular school budgets will pay for the program in Auburn, Bellevue, Highline, Kent, Lake Washington, Northshore, Seattle, Skykomish, Snoqualmie Valley, Tahoma, Tukwila and Vashon Island school districts.

Once this promising program is tried and analyzed, the state should consider expanding it to reach every middle school. The goals include decreasing substance abuse and self harm, and increasing positive student connections to school.

Mental-health counselors from all 12 districts are meeting next week for training in how to interview students flagged for additional help by the confidential online survey. This fall, after informing families, the districts will be rolling out the program school-by-school. Based on a short list of questions, students may be identified as needing more help getting integrated into school life or perhaps needing counseling for depression or anxiety.

This new program is an impressive partnership between public, private and nonprofit organizations. The Check Yourself Tool was developed by researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. Community-based nonprofit organizations like Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue and Kirkland and Navos in Seattle and Burien will provide the follow-up counseling.

The brief survey, which will take less than 10 minutes to complete, asks a series of questions covering relationships, substance abuse, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and safety at home and at school. The screening will connect students with services that are already available in their schools and in some cases may uncover a child who is in need of immediate intervention. In the 2016 statewide Healthy Youth Survey, about 17 percent of eighth-graders said they had considered suicide, while 8 percent had attempted suicide during the previous 12 months. Those statistics should shock us all.

About 8 percent of eighth-graders reported that they use alcohol, 6 percent say they had used marijuana and 5 percent reported using prescription drugs not prescribed to them. The numbers associated with alcohol use have decreased over time, but other drug use has remained steady.

Matt Gillingham, director of student services at the Lake Washington School District, says in most cases students suffering from depression or anxiety won’t externalize those feelings until high school, but mental-health support in middle school could help redirect them toward healthy behaviors.

This program highlights how precious tax dollars can be used for the good of children and community.

Editorial by The Seattle Times

Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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