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Health, Nutrition & Fitness        < Previous        Next >


Mental Health Screening


Q. What are the costs and benefits of mental-health screening for public school students, to indicate children who might be depressed, suicidal, on drugs or alcohol, or prone to violence?


It comes down to the same old question: are individual parents responsible for their child, or is the government? Those who believe it's the former are behind pushes in places like Alaska. It recently passed a state law that says that schools can't force parents to put their kids on psychotropic (behavior-changing) drugs as a condition of enrollment. Another example of parents' rights over the State's interest: Arizona, which recently required schools to let parents view questions on a mental-health type survey before deciding whether to grant permission for their child to take it.


On the other hand, those who believe the government needs to take a stronger role in order to protect students and staff from shootings and other dangers line up behind programs like TeenScreen, developed at Columbia University, the leading mental-health screening program in the country. The states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and New Mexico have mandated mental-health screenings in schools as a preventive measure.


So what's the fuss? It's over control. And it's not likely to be resolved any time soon.


If screening is put in place, we're likely to have more horror stories like this one, outlined by a medical doctor. It's about a girl in Indiana who went through one of the mental-health screenings and was told she had "obsessive-compulsive disorder" because she likes to clean, and "social anxiety disorder" because she doesn't like to party all the time:


Everyone agrees that it's a good idea in schools to screen kids for eyesight and hearing problems in school, and later on, for scoliosis. Early prevention helps hold potential learning problems at bay and keeps the bills manageable as well, for both parents and the taxpayers.


Similarly, we don't want kids with communicable diseases to come to school, and we want to know when there has been a head lice outbreak. Overall, it's clear that physical health protections and programs within public schools are important to parents and the public.


The mind is certainly part of the body. So the health of the mind should probably get the same protections and programs, to maintain health, right? Surely nobody wants to sit back and do nothing while the next Columbine unfolds because kids have fallen mentally ill and people don't realize it!


No. But opponents of mental-health screening believe the government is overstepping its bounds with the screening program, that it's not likely to help the ones who really do need the help, and the chances are high that touchy personal information will get into the wrong hands in the record-keeping process associated with the mental-health screening.


Similarly, they point to concerns that psychiatric care is dicey, the younger the patient gets. And, they say, there's too big a risk that medications will be pushed on kids inappropriately and do harm.


They also contend that a given child's concerns that may be brought out by the screening could probably be solved relatively quickly and economically with better parenting skills, improved nutrition, talk therapy, or any number of other interventions. But they see that frequently, young people are erroneously labeled as having a mental health problem when they don't, and put on medications when less-invasive solutions would've worked if tried.


Homework: For the pro's and cons, visit and a site opposing the screening,


By Susan Darst Williams Health 04 2008

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