More Maine teens, including those in Lewiston-Auburn, are admitting to suicidal thoughts.

Educators say the reasons could lie in more cases of depression, worry about uncertain futures or just more kids being honest about their feelings.

The teenagers have been screened through a program affiliated with Columbia University and run in six Maine high schools. Among the questions TeenScreen asks is whether students have had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in the last three months. The rate answering “yes” to either has grown from 1 percent last school year to 14 percent this year, according to Carol Carothers, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine.

“You start to think, what were the causes?” Carothers said. “I don’t think we can say definitely what it is, just that it is.”

NAMI Maine Assistant Director Carrie Horne said she was “frightened” when she saw the figures.

In Lewiston-Auburn, 40 percent of teens who’ve gone through the program – 27 of the 65 total this year – have screened positive for issues like depression, anxiety, obsessive/compulsive disorder or suicidal thoughts, double the rate of this time last year. And 10 of those 27 screened at risk for suicide.

“What we’re seeing a lot more of, anxiety has gone way, way up for these guys. Part of it is the economy. These kids are worried,” said Maria Duffy, an adolescent support worker involved in the school-based health centers at Edward Little and Lewiston high schools, which are operated by St. Mary’s Health System.

People like Duffy caution that the number of kids involved in the ongoing screening so far in the 2008-2009 school year is small: 88 from the fall of 2008 vs. 224 for the entire 2007-2008 year. But of those, 41 percent were considered at risk from the most recent screening, compared to 23 percent at risk from the 2007-2008 screening.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the state health officer, said Maine does have a youth suicide rate higher than the national average, but she’s seen no new evidence of that rate here going up.

Columbia University’s TeenScreen Program launched in Maine, through NAMI, in 2005 at Lewiston and Auburn high schools. It’s since expanded to include three Portland high schools and one on Mount Desert Island.

It’s offered to all students and is voluntary. Parents have to give permission for their child to be screened and teens have to agree, Duffy said. Tests are self-administered. Students listen over headphones to prompted questions and supply answers into a laptop. Responses produce a score that flags potential risks.

Each screening ends in an exit interview with a licensed mental health clinician. In positive cases, “We call the parents and tell them what resources are available, and we’ll offer a referral if they’d like one,” Duffy said.

Rosemary Kooy, director of the Lewiston-Auburn Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, said it will fund two clinicians in the fall to expand screening to local middle schools.

Because mental health issues are treatable, outcomes are better when questions are asked and help offered early, she said. In its research, Columbia found that in more than half of suicides, for instance, teens had developed symptoms more than a year before their death.

“Many of the students experienced most of their suicidal ideations and attempts when they were in middle school. That’s why we’d like to get into middle school,” Duffy said.

When it comes to stresses, she hears students say they worry about single parents, siblings with special needs and budget cuts they hear on the news.

“Kids no longer take for granted that they’ll be going to college. They don’t necessarily think they can go anymore,” she said.

“These neat, neat kids are a tad hopeless for the future right now.”

She’s also noticed an increase in students admitting to obsessive/compulsive behavior over the last two years. Students say they check and re-check that the lights are off, the stove is off, the doors are locked, the windows closed.

“They’re trying to save their families money, but they repeatedly check,” Duffy said. “They’re becoming vigilant about things they never thought they’d worry about before.”

Some teens, based on appearances, you’d never guess they had an issue, she said. Some tell her, gratefully, “I’ve never had anyone ask that before.”

Jim Lysen, who oversees the school-based health centers at Lewiston and Auburn high schools, said staff has wondered why numbers are high this year and what they can do. One thought: Extending school health services through the summer.

“When school ends, mental health issues don’t end,” he said.

“No one wants to have suicides in their schools,” Lysen added. In that sense, screening has “absolutely” made a difference, he said.

Horne, who helped with a TeenScreen at Lewiston last Thursday, said other high schools, including Mt. Ararat in Topsham and Lincoln Academy, have asked for more information about joining the program.

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