Pilot program to screen Nevada students' mental health

Add mental health to the list of things for which students will be checked.

New legislation means that students at two schools each in Clark and Washoe counties will undergo mental health screening next school year.

Gov. Brian Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 386 into law last week and it goes into effect July 1.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury, R-Henderson, and Assemblyman James Ohrenschall, D-Las Vegas, will establish a pilot program to conduct the mental health screenings. The Clark County School District and the Washoe County School District will select the schools.

“We are trying to head off some problems before they start,” Clark County Family Court Judge Jennifer Henry said. “Judge (William) Voy and I grapple with the fact that we see such an influx of kids coming into the court system with behavioral issues beneath the crimes they are committing. It’s sad that it takes the court intervention to start getting treatment.”

The intent is that the screening will identify students with potential mental health problems. Those with mental or behavioral issues then would have a one-on-one interview with a professional.

About 70 percent of the youth who go through Family Court have mental health issues. Many of them had never been diagnosed.

Of those who had been diagnosed, many never received treatment.

“They are falling through the cracks in our communities,” Henry said.

Intervening in mental health issues could result in fewer expulsions, fewer teens going to behavioral schools and ultimately fewer youth in the legal system, she said.

Ohrenschall, a deputy public defender, said many of the juveniles he works with have undiagnosed mental health issues.

“A lot of issues are going undiagnosed, and (there’s) a lot of parents who don’t know what to do or they choose to ignore it,” he said.

The pilot program would begin to start addressing the issue. Ohrenschall said if the program is effective, lawmakers would look at expanding it during the next legislative session.

Rosemary Virtuoso, director of the Clark County School District’s department of student threat evaluation and crisis response, said details of the implementation for the pilot program are being worked out.

She said it’s likely a similar process used to implement the district’s Signs of Suicide program will be used.

Data from the schools, district and the Clark County coroner’s office were used for the implementation process. The pilot program will be an extension of services in an area of high need, she said.

“We really need to help the community understand that there needs to be more support in the area for mental health,” she said.

Katherine Loudon, coordinator of school counseling for the Washoe district, said her district already has a similar program at six of its 14 middle schools.

The program has been effective in getting youth connected with the resources they need, Loudon said.

But not everyone was in favor of it.

“We did have some places were there was parent opposition,” she said, adding the program was not mandatory.

Tara Raines, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has researched the topic.

Raines is working with six high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District to implement screenings to identify behavioral and emotional risks that may lead to mental health problems. She did similar work with two school districts in Georgia.

“These schools are able to guide their interventions more specifically,” she said.

The schools send consent forms to parents, and they are able to opt out if they don’t feel comfortable having their child screened.

So far, less than 5 percent of parents in the Los Angeles schools have chosen not to have their child participate, she said. Through her research, Raines found that some of those who chose to opt out did so because they were not interested, their child didn’t bring home the consent form or they didn’t understand the screening.

These kinds of screenings should be viewed just like the vision and hearing screenings in schools, she said.

“It’s just as important as physical health,” Raines said. “I fully believe in it and the importance of it and why it’s necessary.”

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.