Opinion: K-12 Update

Mental Health Screening…Coming to a School Near You

K-12 Update

There’s no disputing the fact that many children today are troubled. Rising youth suicide rates and outbreaks of school-based violence have policymakers and parents on high alert. Acknowledging our juvenile mental health problem is easy indeed; reaching consensus on how and where to diagnose children’s emotional maladies is another matter entirely.

Lawmakers are increasingly looking to schools to serve on the psychiatric front lines; fortunately, parents and a host of other organizations are crying foul. Last week, Education Watch and several partner organizations hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill addressing the perils of school-based child psychiatric screening and drugging.

The use of schools as mental health screening sites has been fueled in large measure by President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. The commission’s recommendations (.pdf) for universal mental health screening would place schools in a position of unprecedented influence over the emotional lives of children.

One of the tools touted by the Commission as a “model for early intervention” is TeenScreen, a short questionnaire developed by Columbia University. TeenScreen’s program is currently in use in more than 450 locations in 43 states. To date, at least 600 North Carolina families have been offered screening, according to TeenScreen’s website.

TeenScreen and measures like it are problematic – and potentially dangerous – for several reasons. For starters, there is little evidence that mental health screening actually reduces the incidence of suicide. TeenScreen also has an extremely high rate of false positives – 84 percent by some accounts. This means that many emotionally healthy kids are mislabeled and at greater risk of harmful and unnecessary drugging – a major concern for organizations such as the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). According to a June 16, 2006 Washington Post article, the growth of mental health screening programs has “coincided with a rapid increase in the number of youngsters prescribed powerful antipsychotic medications such as Risperdal and Zyprexa that have not been specifically approved for use by children.”

Universal screening programs can also usurp parental rights. Indiana parents Michael and Teresa Rhoades, whose 15-year-old daughter was administered the TeenScreen test without their consent, took their battle to court in 2005. Their daughter Chelsea was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder based on responses that she liked to clean and didn’t like to party much. Their lawsuit justifiably sparked statewide parental fury. In February, 2007, Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski (.pdf) attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate Indiana’s TeenScreen program.

In Congress, a number of lawmakers are pushing back against universal mental health screening and drugging. Physician and U.S. Representative Ron Paul has been a particularly vocal opponent, introducing H.R. 2387, The Parental Consent Act of 2007, this past May. H.R. 2387 would “prohibit the use of federal funds for any universal or mandatory mental health screening program.” Senator James Inhofe is sponsoring S. 891, The Child Medication Safety Act of 2007, to “protect children and their parents from being coerced into administering a controlled substance in order to attend school.”

What’s a parent to do? Learn about mental health screening programs and inform your elected representative of your views. As a parent, your right to make decisions affecting your child’s physical and mental health is safeguarded by federal law: the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment requires schools to make such survey materials available for parental inspection; schools must also obtain written parental consent before proceeding with a government-funded mental health survey.

Ensuring the emotional well-being of children is a matter of utmost importance. You’ll get no argument here. But it is still the rightful domain of parents and trusted physicians, not schools or the federal government. No law should ever change that.