by Eliza Schafler

Eliza Schafler is an MHAS Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.

Hathaway-Sycamores, like all good mental health agencies, trains staff to “screen” new consumers – i.e., ask certain questions of new children and parents arriving for treatment for the first time. Screening questions might be as straightforward as, “Is he in foster care?” or as challenging as, “Is she at risk of self harm?” A “screening tool,” or list of standardized screening questions, is often a reflection of what clinicians believe are the causes, triggers, and indicators of mental illness. Screening questions also help identify potential roads to wellness.

This month, the Hathaway-Sycamores Family Resource Center decided to incorporate our Behavioral Health-Legal Partnership (BeHeLP) into its screening tool. Now, when new children arrive needing mental health care, they are asked about problems in school that might call for special education intervention. Their parents are asked about problems with income that might indicate a risk of eviction, consumer debt, or a need for public benefits. They are asked about adult barriers, such as immigration status and criminal records, and personal security from violence and dangerous living conditions.

The fact that Hathaway-Sycamores has incorporated legal problems into its screening tool is a sign of deep institutional change. It signals an understanding that addressing legal needs can be as integral to mental health as traditional therapeutic interventions. And it will help us find and help families in need even sooner.