Free mental health screenings available for Staten Island children

By Andrea Boyarsky Staten Island Advance

The Staten Island Mental Health Society is offering free screenings that can help determine a child’s well-being.

When it comes to health checks before sending their children back to school, most parents think of having their kids’ eyes and ears tested and making sure they’re on-point with their physical development.

But one important assessment often is overlooked say experts in the field of mental health: That of the child’s emotional well-being.

Since January the Staten Island Mental Health Society (SIMHS) has been offering screenings through the Early Recognition and Coordination Screening Program, a free service funded by the state Office of Mental Health, that consist of a questionnaire that can help determine if a child needs a follow-up mental health evaluation.

“It’s good to identify problems early on; it can make them easier to treat,” said Paulina Chin, a licensed clinical social worker and supervisor of the SIMHS program.

Ms. Chin mentions the stigma surrounding mental illness as a reason parents may be reluctant to have their child screened. But if the child is not evaluated, it can lead to more problems in the future.

“Oftentimes, we get the referrals for kids that need mental health services after the child has experimented with alcohol or drugs or is going to drop out of school,” said Ms. Chin, who is based out of SIMHS’ office on Castleton Avenue in West Brighton.

“We don’t get to them until later on,” she continued, “years after the problem started brewing.”

There are three screenings available for children depending on their age: The first is for ages 1-and-a-half to 4-and-a-half; the second, 4-and-half to 18, and the last from 18 to 21. Parents do the assessment up until a child is around 11, and then the adolescent is asked to fill out the questionnaire him or herself. Teens 18 and over can take the screening without parental consent, Ms. Chin said. These assessments look more toward tendencies for anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Questions for younger children, she said, concern the child’s attention span, whether he or she has frequent tantrums, is hyperactive or withdrawn and if children can calm themselves down.

The answers may indicate that a child has a behavioral issue, developmental delay or sensory integration disorder, as well as depression or anxiety. If the screening is deemed positive — meaning the child needs further assessment — the parents will be given a referral for a follow-up evaluation. If negative, they will receive a letter stating the results.

Ms. Chin notes that if a child has a positive screen it also can mean the parents’ skills need further development.

“It’s oftentimes a parent-child issue,” she said, adding, “Sometimes, a child needs to learn to self-regulate and the parent needs to teach them to self-regulate.”

Dr. John C. Duby, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Mental Health Leadership Work Group, agrees that a caregiver can contribute to a child’s behavioral issues — something a mental health professional or pediatrician should be able to recognize.

“We know a healthy parent can help support healthy development in their child,” said Dr. Duby, director of the division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio.

“They [professionals] need to really look at a child within the family system and emphasize the importance of understanding the well-being of the caregivers in relation to the child,” he added.

Dr. Duby reports that the importance of mental health screenings for children has gained more traction in recent years, explaining there’s been an increased push for pediatricians to take a role in the assessments.

He encourages parents to see their pediatrician as more than someone they go to for their child’s physical health concerns. The AAP recommends a child undergo a mental health assessment each time he or she goes for well-check visit.

The screenings typically are free, brief and can help deter future issues, Dr. Duby said.

“The hope is that if we can identify [concerns] early, we can prevent them from becoming severe and reduce the need for extensive mental health services, psychiatric care and inpatient mental health services,” the physician said.

“It can also help set children up for long-term success,” Dr. Duby concluded. “If we can address issues early on, we can reduce later problems with school drop-out, pregnancy and getting involved with the criminal justice system.

For more information about the SIMHS’ screening program, call Ms. Chin at 718-442-2225.

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