It was just a simple blood draw — a cholesterol check — but it left students at Champlin Park High School so fidgety last Tuesday that it threw off their readings in the accompanying blood pressure test. Junior Kaleigh Martinson needed three squeezes from the blood pressure cuff before her screener believed a result was accurate.
"She just told me to relax," Martinson said.
Eventually, the junior walked back into health class with a list of her blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index. Next school year, students like her might get an additional piece of information from the Anoka-Hennepin high schools' unique health screening program: assessments of their depression risks.
Organizers are considering adding a confidential mental-health and substance-abuse questionnaire to the schools' annual screening, a reflection of growing attention to anxiety and stress among the nation's teenagers.
"We're trying to [screen] for the holistic needs of the individual students … which we know play into health and academic performance," said Dan Edelstein, a director of an organization called the Northwest Alliance, which is leading the screening partnership.
Enhanced screening is just one idea, subject to approval by the Anoka-Hennepin school board, that earned a $370,000 state health grant for the district and its partnership with the Northwest Alliance, Allina Health and HealthPartners.
But it seemed like a good idea to the Champlin Park students — and one that, surprisingly, would generate fewer jitters than a finger prick of blood.
"I wouldn't care," Martinson said. "They wouldn't share [the results] — and if you needed help, they could come and talk to you."
Kyle Rossberg, a 10th-grader, also supports a screening that could identify students who need support.
Many students are under stress, he said, "especially if they are taking advanced classes."
In-school medical screening at Anoka-Hennepin schools started 19 years ago, when health-class teachers wanted to give students more than just a theoretical understanding of measures such as body mass index, or BMI.
"If you open a health textbook and you go to page 87 and you see a bunch of numbers related to cholesterol, that's not as relevant," said Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent for the district.
"If you say [to a student], 'Here's your number, and here's how it fits on the scale,' we really think that helps with learning."
When results showed a rising number of students with health problems — 21 percent of screened students last school year had borderline or high cholesterol — school officials added follow-up contacts by school nurses to see if students and families wanted support.
In 2012, the screening detected dangerously high blood pressure for one 16-year-old sophomore, and he wound up getting treatment for an undetected heart defect.
Organizers of the project have good reason to turn their attention to student mental health. The 2013 Minnesota Student Survey showed that 44 percent of female 11th-graders in Anoka County had experienced feelings of hopelessness in the last year and that 16 percent had at least thought about suicide.
It's a raw subject for the Anoka-Hennepin district, where several student suicides in a two-year period triggered an emotional debate among parents and school officials over the role of bullying and discrimination over sexual identity. The district expanded student mental health services in 2012 as part of its consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle claims of sex-based harassment.
McGonigal said the grant — one of 12 awarded last month to reform health care delivery in Minnesota — could fund the expansion of those services rather than screening, particularly for students with limited or no health insurance. The district might also create and offer new health-related services, such as cooking classes that send students home after school with meals prepared with fresh produce.
The screenings are voluntary and require parental permission, but in prior years, 90 percent of students took part.Unlike the results for biometric screenings such as BMI, which are given to the students privately but immediately, the results of any mental health screenings likely wouldn't be disclosed right away, Edelstein said. Health professionals at the schools would contact the students and parents later to discuss any results suggesting follow-up care.
Discretion is wise, even if that doesn't occur to students of the social-media generation, said Dawn Prince, an Allina nurse who coordinates screenings at several of the schools.
"You would be surprised," she said after last Tuesday's event. "We try to be very careful and keep their information private — and then they walk back into their classrooms and say, 'Hey, look at my BMI!' "