Richard Spurlock, M.D. MBA is the Medical Director at Kaiser Permanente Southern Colorado
As a not-for-profit health plan, Kaiser Permanente has long been committed to addressing community health issues. As we confronted the growing adolescent suicide rate in Southern Colorado several years ago, the need to address the problem took on a sense of urgency. From 2003-2007, Colorado had the second highest suicide rate in the U.S for youth ages 10-19 (6.8 per 100,000). In 2009, our region of El Paso, County — which includes Colorado Springs — had an alarming youth suicide rate of 12.9 per 100,000.
Given the depth of the problem, we knew we had to take action for the community at large, not just for our members. Adolescent mental health problems are a strong risk factor for suicide, and mental disorders can have enormous implications for a teenager’s life. Left untreated, these conditions can lead to school failure, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and relationship difficulties with peers and families. Depression and other mental health disorders can continue into adulthood, placing a debilitating and expensive health burden on the individual and society.
We identified an opportunity to partner with our affiliate network primary care providers, our behavioral health care partner, ValueOptions, and the TeenScreen National Center at Columbia University. We introduced the TeenScreen program on a local basis, piloting in May 2009 and rolling out the program in 2010.
The results have been positive on all fronts. TeenScreen told us that teenagers would respond honestly to the questionnaire, and they were right. The vast majority of our providers — 95% — say that screening has helped them uncover mental health concerns that they might otherwise have missed. Even if the screening is negative, the results of the questionnaire provide an important opportunity for critical dialogue between teens, parents, and providers. If a Kaiser Permanente teen member is screened and potential problems are identified, families and providers are connected to ValueOptions immediately for a full mental health evaluation with a qualified mental health professional. Other teens are directed by their physicians to mental health providers and resources in the community. By 2010, the teen suicide rate in El Paso County had dropped by half to 6.3 per 100,000. I believe our work contributed to that decrease.
Our TeenScreen program has gained regional and national recognition. It was nominated for a Kaiser Permanente CARE award and for the company’s prestigious James A. Vohs national award. These awards are gratifying, but what is most important is that we have made a difference.
Teen suicide is absolutely a preventable issue and teens should get the mental health care they need. We would encourage all physicians that care for teens to embrace adolescent mental health screening and work with TeenScreen National Center to make it happen.