Saving lives one teen at a time

If John Perona were shouting from a mountain top, his message would be simple. Teens want to talk — they just need someone to listen. Perona, the supervisor of Kitsap Mental Health Services’ (KMHS) children’s crisis team, sees it every day. The 1,100 students he works with in a given year are dealing with emotional issues that require an intervention. His goal — one he shares with a mental wellness screening program that’s relatively new to Kitsap County — is to find those teenagers before that point.

That’s where TeenScreen comes in.

In 2005, Bainbridge Island High School was the first to implement TeenScreen, a national program that focuses on teenage suicide prevention. Ninth-grade students who have parental consent take a computer-based questionnaire that assesses the students’ likelihood to consider or attempt suicide. If the risk factors are there, the student is referred to an onsite, volunteer counselor for an immediate, face-to-face followup. That counselor can then refer the student to a counselor for treatment. Students who take the survey are assigned a number to protect students’ confidentiality. In addition, KMHS keeps the students’ computer evaluations and assessment records.

North Kitsap School District’s high schools, North Kitsap and Kingston, implemented the program in 2007. The TeenScreen program is a national one started by Columbia University. It is active in more than 400 communities.

A combined effort between the school districts, KMHS, the Kitsap County Health District and community counselors brought the program to fruition, said Barbara Smithson, a health district community liaison.

The fact of the matter is that in the last eight years, 15 children 18 and younger in Kitsap County have taken their own lives, Perona said. Teen suicide is an ongoing issue Perona’s team and TeenScreen battle every day. In one recent eight-day period, Perona talked with 12 children in crisis. Eight of them were deemed either a danger to themselves or someone else, requiring admission into a mental health hospital.

Other statistics also paint a grim picture: for every one suicide, there are four people hospitalized because of suicide attempts; and in Kitsap County, men are three times more likely to die at their own hands than women.

The key to curbing those statistics is early intervention, Smithson said.

“Early intervention is important because these kids may not be in crisis,” Smithson said. “We want to identify (issues) early before they get to that point of crisis.”

While there may be a societal stigma attached to receiving counseling, Perona said most teenagers are willing to see beyond that and seek help if they need it.

“Kids who are in pain want to talk. Kids who are in pain want to talk to someone who isn’t going to be a brain cop,” Perona said. “They want to get rid of ‘I don’t like me.’”

The team is eager to get TeenScreen in more school districts throughout the county and get more funding to widen the program’s reach.

For parents who believe their children may need to seek counseling, Perona advises they don’t tread lightly. He recommends taking the child aside to a safe environment for a conversation and confronting the issue head-on.

“Make sure they are able to see it’s a safe conversation in a safe place and if they need support they’ll be able to get it,” Perona said.

If parents don’t have health insurance or other financial means, KMHS has a wealth of resources on tap, Perona said.

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