At the beginning of each fall semester, Highland Park High School freshmen take home a letter and permission slip to their parents for the option to participate in a confidential mental health screening.
This screening, Teens Can Survive, formally called Teen Screen, is administered via a computer program and results are audited by licensed professional counselors from the Suicide & Crisis Center of North Texas (SCC). The only way a participant can be identified is by their student ID.
The screening is not designed to diagnose the student; rather, it identifies suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance use, according to HPHS personal counselor Dr. Candice Conner. The results are given straight to Conner and SCC wipes its records.
“At Highland Park, I remember the first time I handed a list of screened students to the main counselor, and she looked at it and she said under her breath, ‘Oh, I had no idea,’” said Margie Wright, the executive director of the SCC.
The screening is what Wright describes as a point-in-time snapshot. It’s meant to alert counselors to students who are currently struggling, but may not have spoken to anyone.
“I don’t need your red flag kids. I need the ones that nobody suspects,” Wright said. “And that’s what the screening was designed to do. It really does catch the kids that are under the radar.”
Columbia University designed the screening and has trained all the SCC staff. According to Wright, Highland Park has one of the highest participation rates in the screening of all the districts or organizations the SCC works with, though it’s not 100 percent. Conner said the participation wasn’t as good as she would like.
“I wish they all would [participate],” Conner said.
Highland Park began screening in the early 2000s, with the aim of establishing relationships with students entering high school.
“We felt like doing ninth grade would help us identify anyone who needed our help early on in their high school career,” Conner said. “I have talked about wanting to screen more, but the logistics are nightmare-ish.”
The SCC does do the screening at middle schools, and for multiple grades at some high schools, Wright said. While Highland Park Middle School doesn’t screen students, they do have a health curriculum aimed at teaching students how to maintain good mental health, how to have healthy relationships, and what’s going on in their brains.
Through the course of a semester, HPMS health department chair Burgandy Bass brings in groups, such as the Elisa Project, CARE, the Grant Halliburton Foundation, and the Family Place, to supplement the curriculum.
“We try to give them experiences throughout the entire semester to use the skills that we’re trying to show, to teach them to cope with life,” Bass said. “One of the little quotes that I have is, ‘The ultimate mental health sport is life.’”
Health is required for HPISD students to graduate and around 80 percent of students take it in middle school, according to HPMS principal Lori Hitzelberger. Bass impresses on students that they have the power to help their friends, whether by offering to go talk to the counselor or a teacher.
“They are their team, and they want to support each other and they’re going to be around each other far more than we’re going to be around them,” Bass said. “We’re just trying to help them with the skills to be able to support each other and get the help that they need in the event that they ever do need help.”
Middle school counselors rotate with their class from fifth through eighth grade allowing them to establish personally-supportive relationships with students, according to lead counselor Margaret Arnold. She currently serves the eighth-grade class and will speak to the high school counselors before school starts in the fall about which incoming freshmen to keep an eye on.
“What we do is pass our kids off,” Arnold said. “The fourth-grade counselors come over and meet with the fifth-grade counselors; the eighth grade meets with the high school, because some students are just more needy and we’re watching. And there’s no reason for people to have to rediscover those kinds of things.”
Middle school counselors each work with more than 560 students, according to Hitzelberger. After several requests from Hitzelberger over the past couple of years, she was able to hire Greg Rico as a Student Assistance Services Counselor. Rico serves as a personal counselor following an initial visit with their academic counselor.
“We are thrilled that he’s here and available to work with our students on more of their emotional needs at kind of a deeper level,” Hitzelberger said.
When asked if there had been a shift in the community’s attitude toward mental health care in the past decade, Arnold said she thought there was more awareness.
“I think some of the issues will always be the same, but oh, that’s hard to say. Perhaps there is a more openness, about adolescent depression, about those types of things,” she said.
Hitzelberger wants parents not to be ashamed or afraid to reach out to counselors, teachers, or someone in the community with their concerns.
“I think they can really help you to look at: is this really serious, is this normal child development, is this just puberty and hormones, or is this something really serious,” Hitzelberger said.