Minn. clinics lag in youth mental health screenings

The health dept. found most clinics screened only about 40 percent of adolescents.

Kristina Busch

Minnesota medical practitioners often miss the chance to catch mental illnesses during checkups with the teenagers they treat.
About 20 percent of University students have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime, according to the 2015 University of Minnesota College Student Health Survey.
Yet a Minnesota Department of Health  and MN Community Measurement report from late last month found most Minnesota clinics only screened 40 percent of teens ages 12 to17 during an annual physical exam.
Researchers evaluated clinics based on how often they looked for signs of emotional, social or behavioral disorders — like anxiety — to decide whether or not the teens would need further care.
“Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14,” MDH Quality Reform Implementation Supervisor Denise McCabe said. “If we can identify adolescents who are struggling with mental health conditions, we can then provide support that will help their ability to cope with school, social situations and other stresses.”
Students visiting Boynton Health Service for a physical are screened by nurses for signs of mental illness, too, Chief Medical Officer Gary Christenson said.
Boynton patients are asked about their mood and if they’re feeling down, along with whether their interests are still important to them, Christenson said.
“If someone comes into primary care for a physical exam,” he said, “that is a golden opportunity to pick up on some depression that might not have been picked up otherwise.”
He said if their answers signal symptoms of depression, the patient will be advised to seek further screening to look for markers of depression, like feeling hopeless, having a
hard time focusing or sleeping irregularly.
Still, patients who come to Boynton for specific complaints, rather than a checkup, usually won’t be screened, Christenson said.
Instead, he said a nurse will evaluate the patient’s body language and mannerisms for typical signs of mental illness and will call for further testing if necessary.
Less than half of Minnesota teens are screened for depression because the Department of Health 
recommends — but doesn’t require — that a clinic talks to a patient about their mental health, McCabe said.
Hamdi Farah, president of University Underserved Mental Health Association, a mental health advocacy student group, said an ongoing stigma around mental health might deter students from getting the help they need.
“Mental health is overlooked in the medical field,” she said. “Depending on the provider you go to, a lot of people say they are too afraid to tell their provider about what they are going through. They fear that their provider will say everything is just in their head, or they are just crazy.”
Christenson said about half of students with depression don’t ask for help, but Boynton offers self-screening services on their website for students who can’t see a practitioner.
“Some students may not be able to meet with a physician for any reason but may still wonder why they are feeling the way they are,” Christenson said. 
Students can go to a peer counselor if they’re apprehensive about talking to a doctor, Farah said.
McCabe said she hopes the MDH report will urge Minnesota clinics to include mental health screenings as a part of regular physical exams.