The tragedy at Columbine opened our eyes to the serious troubles teens face today. The tragic events at Virginia Tech were another alarming wake-up call: Suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents (ages 15-19) and it's estimated that 80 percent of youth who are depressed are not diagnosed.
Thanks to a grant from Senator Thomas P. Morahan, state senator for Rockland and Orange Counties and chairman of the New York State Senate Committee in Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, a new program aims to help troubled teens and their parents. Launched by the NYU Child Study Center and affiliated with Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center and the Nathan Kline Institute, the STEPSinitiative is set to kick off in Rockland County high schools. This pilot program aims to provide a local solution to a national problem by identifying and providing access to treatment for teens with mental health problems — to reduce risk for suicide and school violence. STEPS stands for Screening, Treatment, and Education to Prevent Suicide.
According to Christopher P. Lucas, M.D., associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and attending physician at the NYU Child Study Center, most suicide prevention approaches have taken a single approach: They've either provided educational/curriculum sessions at school, implemented screening procedures, or they've tried to get health professionals to treat depression more effectively. "What we're trying to do is combine the best elements of these," he says.
Dr. Lucas, who developed the STEPS educational and screening tools, used a threefold approach, focusing equally on screening, education and treatment. He designed the program to reduce the stigma associated with screening, help-seeking and treatments so that troubled teenagers don't slip through the cracks and so get the attention and care they need. "We're going to use a combination of traditional in-school curricula and parent education sessions," he says. This aims to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of at-risk teens, reduce the stigma, and address the very real concerns of parents and students. Sessions (appropriate for a health class) will cover topics such as depression and suicide, understanding and coping with emotions, alcohol and drugs, eating issues and body image, relationships, parents, physical health, sexual health and wellness.
STEPS also provides a wellness website written by Dr. Lucas, the STEPS staff, faculty from NYU, and health/mental health professionals from a college health website company already working with NYU Student Health. There are two separate sites — one for teens (TEEN PATHWAYS), and one for parents (PARENT PATHWAYS) — and both will be packed with need-to-know information, interactive activities to build skills, self-assessment components to look for warning signs, and online screenings to help identify at-risk behavior. In participating school districts, on a regular basis throughout the school year, parents and teens will be able to receive customized emails inviting them to learn more about a particular health topic, to explore the relevant areas of the two specially designed websites and to participate in self-assessments or more formal screening. Resources on the Teen Pathways website also include interactive activities to increase understanding and teach techniques, and moderated social networking and online discussion pages allowing students to share their experiences. The Parent Pathways website will provide parent-specific information, highlighting "warning signs" for parents and offering online parent discussion groups. Finally, they'll provide access to treatment. "One of the key components is connecting identified teens with treatment resources locally," adds Dr. Lucas.
STEPS is a continuing program with rolling admission that began this fall in Rockland County, but Dr. Lucas hopes to branch out statewide. "One exciting component of STEPS is the inclusion of high school students themselves in both the design and implementation of the program in their school communities," says Dr. Lucas. "Interested students from each participating school will have the opportunity to become STEPS Fellows, advising on content of the educational materials and prevention activities." High school students will also be encouraged to carry out a small scientific project with guidance from research faculty at the Child Study Center. At the end of the year, STEPS Fellows will have the opportunity to present their findings and be eligible for a college scholarship award.
STEPS is free. Interested parents, teens, or schools should email Steps@med.nyu.edu for more information.