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What I Learned About People Through Mental Health Screens

By Madeline Halpern, MHA National Policy and Programs Analyst

Before I started working at Mental Health America (MHA), I had almost no experience with mental health screening.

My only interaction had been the one time my doctor screened me for depression and then gave me a prescription for antidepressants.

Since then, I have come to learn a lot more about mental health, screening, and how early identification can change the trajectory of lives.

My job is to look at the 2.25 million mental health screens that have been taken through www.MHAScreening.org and make sense of all those numbers. Every day I see what people are asking, what kind of help they need, and who they are.

They’re not just numbers to me. They’re people.

I know that most of our screeners have never heard of us, and just found our screens by Googling, “Am I depressed?” I know that most of them are young and have never interacted with the mental health system before. I know they’re scared, and I know they’re looking for help.

Although I have learned a lot from going through the data, the most interesting things I’ve learned have come from conversations with people I have met face-to-face screening for mental health.

One of the most difficult skills to teach humans is empathy. Children don’t develop empathy until they are well into their grade school years. So, it can be difficult to explain to people who lack experience with mental health how our screening program works.

I often suggest that the person takes a screen related to what they are currently feeling might be problematic in their life. I do this professionally and personally – even at parties. Each time I do, I get a little better at understanding how people think about their mental health.

One of the most popular screens people take is for anxiety. Most of the time, they take the screen to “prove” that they’re doing well, only to score in the moderate to severe range for anxiety. They ask us what this means, if this is right, and what they can do about that – and we’re right there to help them.

When this happens, I often wonder how many people come to our site thinking they are only a little sad or sometimes moody only to be surprised that they might have depression or bipolar disorder.

Our data shows us this is true – 68% of screeners report that they’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health condition before. By reaching them now, using early identification and prevention strategies, we know we can change lives - before they reach Stage 4.

So many of the warning signs for mental health conditions line up with things we consider to be normal parts of life, like feeling tired all the time, worrying about things, or having trouble sleeping.

Most people write these feelings off, rather than thinking they need to talk to someone or take a mental health screen.

But there’s so much more to their story than that.

When someone completes a mental health screen, their results are only the beginning of a longer journey towards wellness. A screen can sometimes uncover a larger issue, or it can be used to start a conversation with family and friends about the importance of caring for your mental health before a crisis.

MHA is meeting these screeners where they are at; we are referring them to local Affiliates that can help them navigate mental health in their communities, providing free educational content to learn and share with family and friends to raise awareness about their mental health conditions, and we’re protecting access to care and parity for mental health at the local, state, and federal level.

I am encouraged by the sheer number of people seeking help, and hope that as I continue to work with the screening data, I will continue to see the real stories behind the numbers. We know at MHA that mental health – at any stage – should be taken seriously.

For those who are starting to experience the first signs of a potential mental illness, we also know that taking an anonymous screen is a great place to start – to make sure that the individuals behind the numbers get the help that they need and deserve.


Learn more about MHA’s online mental health screening program here.

Take a free, anonymous, and secure mental health screen by going to www.MHAScreening.org.

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