Objectives: To explore adolescent students' use of school based health and medical care and mental health and substance abuse counseling services and to compare adolescents' patterns of use of medical, mental health, and substance abuse services located in school-based and traditional settings.
Design: Retrospective analysis of computer-stored, standardized data for all student visits during a 4-year period.
Setting: Three high school-based student health centers.
Subjects: A total of 3818 adolescent students who used services provided by the school-based health centers (SBHCs).
Outcome measures: Frequencies of student visits to medical providers and mental health and substance abuse counselors and frequencies of diagnostic assignments.
Results: During a 38-month period, 3818 students attending senior high school made a total of 27 886 visits to three SBHCs. They represented 63% of students enrolled in the SBHCs and approximately 42% of the total school population. There were no significant demographic differences between students attending the SBHCs and the overall student body. However, compared with students who were enrolled in the SBHCs but did not use them, users were more likely to be female and Hispanic. Ninety-four percent of students using the services had visits with medical providers; 25% had visits with mental health counselors; and 8% of students had visits with substance abuse counselors. The total annual mean number of student visits was 4.7, and the annual mean numbers of visits for students who used the following services were: medical, 3.3; mental health, 5.8; and substance abuse, 6.8. An average of 1.4 diagnoses were made per visit. The most common major diagnostic categories were emotional problems (29% of all diagnoses), health supervision (13%), respiratory problems (11%), reproductive health problems (11%), and substance abuse problems (8%). Almost one fourth of the students had contact with more than one of the three categories of service provicer. Visit frequency increased significantly for students who used two categories of provider (13 to 15 mean total visits compared with 4 to 5 mean total visits for students who used just one category of provider) and escalated to a mean of 32 total visits if all three categories of service were used.
Conclusions: Adolescents attending SBHCs had higher rates of visits for health and medical care than adolescents using traditional sources of medical care. The proportions of student users of SBHC mental health and substance abuse counseling services were commensurate with the estimated prevalences of these problems in this country's adolescent population. In addition, the mean numbers of visits to mental health counselors in SBHCs compared favorably with adolescent visit rates for mental health services in other settings. Too little information is available about adolescent use of substance abuse services in non-school-based settings to make similar comparisons. In summary, adolescent users of SBHCs seemed to have a higher use of medical, mental health, and probably substance abuse counseling services than did adolescents in the general populations. These findings are consistent with the interpretation that SBHCs do enhance adolescents' access to care for medical, mental health, and substance abuse problems.