Mental health screenings offered

Eighth-graders could volunteer for assessment

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Hollidaysburg Area School District will offer in-school voluntary screening measures to assess the risk for depression and other mental health or behavioral health concerns in eighth-graders.

Board member Lois Kaneshiki is against it. Although she said she was out of town for the board’s meeting Wednesday, she made her opinion known on Facebook leading up to it.

She spoke Friday about her position. She believes the screenings would largely be inaccurate and could eventually lead to harmful medications.

Tom McCaffrey, a former emotional support teacher with 18 years of experience working with children with emotional or behavioral challenges, addressed the board Wednesday before the vote. He was critical of Kaneshiki’s ideas.

The Hollidaysburg Area School Board members present for Wednesday’s meeting voted 7-0 to approve the screenings. Kaneshiki and board member Melissa Mitchell were absent. Mitchell could not be reached for comment Friday.

On Facebook prior to the April 17 meeting, Kaneshiki had asked people to contact other board members and urge them to vote against the screenings.

“These screenings are experimental. They result in inaccurate labeling of kids,” she posted.

In a phone interview Friday, Kaneshiki said she has been researching the topic since February when legislation was proposed to mandate all school-age children to receive a depression screening with their physicals. The proposal was introduced with the support of state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and has not yet moved from the Senate education committee.

Kaneshiki said her research causes her to believe many kids may be unnecessarily put on dangerous, addictive psychotropic drugs as a result, and that will permanently change the structures of their brains.

“This is all very scary to me,” she said. “I’m against this not because I’m not concerned about mental health issues. I am concerned, but this is not the way to fix it.”

She said that she did not think drugs would be a direct result of the screenings but the end of a process that starts with the screenings.

“These screenings will put these kids into a pipeline,” she said.

She referenced the book “Big Pharma” by Steven Sheller, as well as the Alliance for Human Research Protection.

“These screenings are solutions looking for a problem, courtesy of the Big Pharm­aceutical industry,” she said.

On social media, she referenced the website of the Alliance for Human Research Protection that critiqued Columbia Univer­sity’s ‘TeenScreen” method for a high rate of “false positives.”

Kaneshiki said she asked for the screening questions from the company that will provide the screening to Hollidaysburg students, but the company refused to disclose the questions.

McCaffrey refuted Kaneshiki’s opinion and has never heard of the Alliance for Human Research Pro­tection. He said the site proposes a conspiracy theory about screening programs.

“Teen Screen” is not the program being considered tonight, so I do not understand its relevance,” he said.

“I believe her position is incorrect and is grounded in lack of awareness of the mental, emotional and social challenges facing many of the students in the district as well as a lack of understanding that we, as a district, are already doing school-based referrals through the Student Assist­ance Program. … But depression is not always outwardly demonstrated … screening captures manifestations of adolescent distress that are otherwise overlooked by involved adults.”

McCaffrey sees value in the screenings and said they would not lead straight to labels or medications.

“To say further research is being done does not mean that school-based screening is experimental,” he said. “These are screening devices and are not diagnostic tools. No student receives a label based on a screening tool alone. No student will be placed on medications based on screening. Those decisions are made by physicians after a far more involved diagnosis process.”

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization strongly supports early mental health screening in a primary care doctor’s office or in school.

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights formed by the Church of Scientology warns against screenings because of alleged ties to pharmaceutical companies.

McCaffrey pointed out that Kaneshiki shared an article on Facebook from the St. Louis Dispatch that stated the Church of Scientology was a critic of screening programs.

“Well, at least the word ‘science’ is in there somewhere,” he said.

McCaffrey said he has worked with students with such severe anxiety disorders that they could not leave their bedrooms, with students with severe eating disorders and students who were cutters. Many students were suffering from depression, he said — one attempted suicide at age 7.

“A few years ago, while teaching at the senior high with a different administration than the current one, I raised a concern about a student of mine, who I believed to be at risk of suicide,” he said. “He had been cutting and seemed despondent. I expressed my concerns to the administration to no avail. Weeks later, his mother called me and said that she had found a suicide note and that he had been searching for a rope. It may have taken a few years, but last September, he found that rope and was successful in ending his pain.”

McCaffrey choked back tears.

“I failed him. His family failed him. The school failed him. This community failed him,” he said. “We can do better. We have to do better.”

Superintendent Bob Gildea explained the context for the screenings.

Since 2017, the district has been receiving funding from the Garrett Lee Smith State Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Grant Program.

It has helped the district meet requirements of state law related to suicide prevention by providing resources for the district, but there was a component of the grant which Hollidaysburg has not yet implemented. That is a behavioral health screening.

Gildea said the screening will be free to the district and available to all eighth-grade students.

The screening would be administered once to families that volunteer for it. Counselors receive results immediately and parents are contacted.

“Parents are in the driver’s seat as to how an issue is addressed,” he said. “The screener brings awareness to the issue. It’s in the parents’ power to decide what to do with that.”

Gildea pointed out that students self-reported information recorded in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, which is administered every two years to students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12. The most recent survey was in 2017.

“That survey showed 33 percent of our students are experiencing depression and frighteningly, 13 or 14 percent of our students have expressed thoughts of suicide,” Gildea said. “As far as I’m concerned, mental wellness of our children is a crisis that our country is just now realizing.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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