New push underway to test all students for mental health disorders

New push underway to test all Hawaii students for mental health disorders
Published: Apr. 3, 2018 at 9:39 PM HST|Updated: Apr. 3, 2018 at 11:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Mental health advocates are pushing schools to screen every student for mental health issues.

"It's a huge issue," said Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America. "Half of all mental illnesses emerge by the age of 14."

He said mental disorders have long been a taboo topic associated with shame.

"Children's mental health is an issue that many people don't understand," said Gionfriddo. "We're afraid to describe it sometimes. And recognize it."

Gionfriddo admits he brushed off signs of his own son's mental disorder. He said symptoms started when he was just 5.

"He had trouble sleeping. He had trouble with friendship formation. He reported at a very young age hearing voices," said Gionfriddo.

Unfortunately, it would take years for his son to get a diagnosis. At 17, doctors determined he was schizophrenic.

Today, Gionfriddo shares his family's story to raise awareness about the prevalence of mental illness.

Experts say depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis and post traumatic stress syndrome are some of the most common mental disorder in children.

"Schools should be screening kids as ubiquitously for mental illness as they do for vision and hearing," said Gionfriddo.

DOE doesn't require mandatory screenings.

Based on national statistics, it's estimated 20 percent of children are impacted by some sort of mental disorder. That would be about 36,000 students in Hawaii public schools.

The state Department of Education said it didn't immediately have figures on the number of students with mental illnesses at schools.

A spokesman said schools have access to a variety of  behavioral health professionals, along with counselors and social workers. Officials also provided a list of programs for children with mental health and learning challenges.

Gionfriddo argues that's not enough.

"What we end up doing is delaying for 10 years the onset of symptoms to the onset of effective treatment. Those are 10 wasted years that we lose a lot of kids," said Gionfriddo.

DOE added it has recently received a grant to improve how it identifies and supports children and families impacted by mental illness.

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