SAMHSA Guide to Identifying Child Mental Health and Substance use Problems

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) published a comprehensive guide, “Identifying Mental Health and Substance Use Problems of Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Child Service Organizations” to promote early identification of children and adolescents with mental health and substance use problems.
SAMSHA audited a variety of available tools for identifying substance abuse problems in youth, and created a matrix of the most useful tools. Many of these screening tools are free, and others are available for a nominal fee.
Geared toward personnel working in child-serving organizations and families of children and adolescents being served, the guide offers strategies and methods for identifying problems in high-risk youth. According to the guide,

Almost 21 percent of children and adolescents in the United States have a diagnosable mental health or addictive disorder that affects their ability to function.
In any given year, 5 percent to 9 percent of youths ages 9 to 17 have a serious emotional disturbance that causes substantial impairment in how they function at home, at school, or in the community.

While most children develop coping skills for these life disturbances, those who don’t often lack the resources needed to receive treatment. Via the guide,

An estimated 60 percent of children and adolescents with mental health problems do not receive mental health services.
An estimated 6.1 million youths between the ages of 12 and 17 needed treatment for an illicit drug abuse problem in 2001. Of this group, only 1.1 million youths received treatment, leaving an estimated treatment gap of 5 million.
In 2000, approximately 3 million youths were at risk for suicide. Of that group, only 36 percent received any treatment for mental health or substance abuse disorders.

This lack of treatment raised a flag for SAMSHA to create the guide as a reference point for those hoping to advance early identification of mental health and substance abuse problems. As a start, SAMSHA laid out five key best practices for screening:

  1. Do No Harm
  2. Get Informed Consent
  3. Use a Scientifically Sound Screening Process
  4. Safeguard the Screening Information; Ensure its Proper Use
  5. Link to Assessment and Treatment Services

To address the third point, SAMSHA vetted available tools, working with researchers from the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health and the University of Minnesota to identify the screening tools that, “exhibited the strongest scientific evidence of usefulness.”
Jump to pages 39-40 of the guide for a detailed matrix on best screening tools for various applications. Finally, an example of a screening tool can be found for free online on the website.

juvenile-justice-system_David-BackesDavid Backes writes the Friday news roundup for Reclaiming Futures and contributes articles about juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment to He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Santa Clara University. David works as an account executive for Prichard Communications.

Updated: July 24 2012