Mental Health Tests For Kids Spark Debate – Chicago Tribune

Mental Health Tests For Kids Spark Debate – Chicago Tribune

Sun, 5 Jun 2005

The Chicago Tribune has woken to the major debate which is underway about a government-sponsored initiative to increase profits for the psychotropic drug industry and its beneficiaries in the mental health provider industry:

“The furor started to bubble up last fall, when the partnership held public forums at five locations around the state, including Chicago. One common fear is that all students would be screened, not just those exhibiting troubling behavior….Eaton, the lobbyist, said private citizens shared their experiences with her, recalling how they were different from other students and did not fit the mold. In today’s climate, “they were confident that they would be stigmatized as mentally ill. It was very painful to listen to.”

State Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora), who calls it an overreach of government: “When I listened to constituents on this issue, I heard real fear in their voices . . . that their kids would be labeled; that other classmates might not want to play with them,” Lauzen said.

The proposed mass mental health screeing initiative is but a fishing expedition whose goal is to increase the roster of “clients” in the mental health system. Screening for mental health is a threat to privacy, personal autonomy, parental authority, and children’s right to develop their mind normally without drugs–drugs whose safety is a matter of contentious debate.

The US is the only nation to have even contemplated the folly of mass mental health screening.

I have just returned from an international conference on, Youth and Medicines, convened in Sweden by the Swedish organization, Kilen–Consumer Institute for Medicines & Health.

In my presentation I described the recommendations of the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health–and the body of evidence of the abusive use of psychotropic drugs to control children’s behavior.

The audience–representatives from Western and Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa–was visibly horrified!

The subjective tools used for mental health screening–such as, the subjective questionnaire devised by TeenScreen–are scientifically unsound. Such questionnaires are a sure way to increase the number of children labeled as having a mental disorder. Such a label is a first step toward prescribing psychotropic drugs to control children’s behavior. Children’s bad behavior is often a result of a poor diet rich in sugar and fat and lack of exercise.

The targeting of schools for the purpose of screening children for hidden mental health problems is a throwback to the Eugenics movement in America. Eugenicists screened families for “feeble mindedness”–psychiatrists / psychologists screen for presumed mental health problems. The tools of psychiatry are not backed by science–their margin of error ensures false positives–which leads to human tragedies but is financially good for business.

Those who are labeled become an underclass whose rights are abrogated: children and parents of children labeled as having a mental disorder lose their right to say NO to prescribed “treatments”–whether the treatments are in the child’s best interest or not. Like eugenicists, the mental health industry relies on government agents to enforce their prescriptions by use of force.

Legitimate medical professionals do not resort to force–if the treatments they offer are therapeutic, patients will come knocking at their door voluntarily.

Chicago Tribune
Mental health tests for kids spark debate
Opponents fear labeling of students
By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Meg McSherry Breslin contributed to this report

June 5, 2005

Suzanne Cahalan knew there was a problem when her 4-year-old daughter started stealing from friends and relatives. But it took eight years before the Wheaton mother of four finally found out that the girl suffered from bipolar disorder.

Such delays in diagnosis make a powerful case that youngsters should be monitored closely for mental health problems, according to children’s advocates who are drafting a plan to increase awareness in Illinois schools about depression, anxiety and other disorders, as well as the need to screen children when warning signs occur.

“Our daughter lost some crucial growing-up time,” said Cahalan, an attorney. “If we had known earlier, we could have sought appropriate treatment to alleviate some of her symptoms. We could have saved not only her, but our entire family from some very terrifying days.”

Critics say that such initiatives are what is truly terrifying. Conservative and anti-government Web sites have been buzzing for months about how such plans will lead to children being forcibly tested, unfairly labeled–and even drugged. Most of all, opponents say that watching out for mental disorders is the responsibility of parents, not institutions.

“The purpose of school is to educate,” said Fran Eaton, a lobbyist who represents the Illinois Family Institute, Concerned Women of America and other conservative groups in Springfield. “At a time when the U.S. is lagging behind other nations in math and science, is this what we should be doing? Do we really want the state involved in determining emotional and social development?”

The idea of being more proactive gained momentum after President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health found in 2003 that only 20 percent of troubled children receive treatment, and it called for schools to play a bigger role. Congress allocated $20 million for states to develop a range of programs, emphasizing prevention, early identification and intervention.

“This is not a hunt to find mental illness. It’s about trying to support children so they can be healthy,” said Barbara Shaw, chairwoman of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership, the task force developing the plan to improve access to treatment for youth from preschool through adolescence. A new draft of the plan is due on the governor’s desk by month’s end.

“Children have been kicked out of day care centers, failed in schools and generally suffered needlessly,” Shaw said. “Through better screening, parents will have more information to help them help their children.”

Assessment tools are already used by primary care physicians, in early childhood programs and a variety of school settings. Questionnaires that evaluate mood and behavior–such as the TeenScreen Program developed at Columbia University–are used to identify those at high risk for depression and other mood disorders.

A sample question asks: “In the past month, how much of a problem have you had with feeling unhappy or sad?” Responses range from “1, no problem” to “5, very bad problem.”

In the primary grades, one popular questionnaire is Ages and Stages, which is filled out by parents. In all cases, trained personnel, such as school psychologists, do the scoring. If concerns are identified, parents are encouraged to get further information. Any follow-up is at the discretion of the parent, officials said, just as it is when a child is identified as needing eyeglasses.

“Here we have something that can really help kids,” said Dr. Louis Kraus, head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. “If schools are just to educate, then why do we require a physical exam or that vaccines are up-to-date? It makes sense to use schools . . . because that’s where the kids are.”

The Chicago Public Schools system has hired a consultant from the University of North Carolina to help more preschool teachers figure out when a child’s problems are serious enough to require help such as special education services. School leaders hope to get budget approval for mental-health screeners and teacher training for about 25 schools beginning in the fall.

As with cancer or diabetes, mental illness is most responsive to therapy when caught early, said Dr. Carl Bell, a child psychiatrist and president of the Chicago Community Mental Health Council. When left untreated, mental illness places children at higher risk for dropping out of school, substance abuse, criminal activity and suicide.

School officials already patrol for everything from tuberculosis to head lice, and mental illness should be no different, he said. “All they’re doing is jacking it up a notch,” said Bell, calling this one of the most urgent public health issues of the day.

“We’re at the point where it’s going to become unethical not to do these things–just as, in 2005, it is not ethical to deny a child a polio or a smallpox shot.”

However, anti-government and anti-psychiatry groups–nationally as well as in Illinois–believe the diagnosis of mental illness is subjective, at best. And they contend that such ambitious plans come with a built-in profit motive.

“The stakeholders in this campaign have a financial interest in inflating the roster of children and adults who get labeled mentally ill,” said Vera Hassner Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a patient advocacy group. More screened kids means more money for psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry, she said.

Kraus scoffed at that notion. “Most of us are so overwhelmed [by demand] that the concept that we’re pushing for this to line our pockets is a joke.”

A conservative newsletter, the Illinois Leader, helped fuel the controversy by reporting that testing would be mandatory and done without parental consent. Officials say this is not true.

Nevertheless, when the Illinois partnership–made up of representatives from more than 30 health, education and child advocacy groups–delivers a new draft, it will spell out more explicitly that any screening would be voluntary and by parental permission.

The furor started to bubble up last fall, when the partnership held public forums at five locations around the state, including Chicago. One common fear is that all students would be screened, not just those exhibiting troubling behavior.

Eaton, the lobbyist, said private citizens shared their experiences with her, recalling how they were different from other students and did not fit the mold. In today’s climate, “they were confident that they would be stigmatized as mentally ill. It was very painful to listen to.”

“Testing for kids in foster care or corrections–we have no objections with that,” she said. “It’s the idea that every child is seen as having a potential need for mental health care is where we have a problem.”

Tweaking the language of the proposed plan doesn’t placate State Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora), who calls it an overreach of government.

“When I listened to constituents on this issue, I heard real fear in their voices . . . that their kids would be labeled; that other classmates might not want to play with them,” Lauzen said.

Proponents say one way to erase the stigma is to bring mental health into the mainstream. They also argue that it is unpredictable behavior, not the results of an assessment, that separates children from their peers.

The eight-year lag experienced by Cahalan’s daughter from onset of symptoms to diagnosis and treatment is fairly typical, experts say. At age 12, the girl finally received the medications that tamed her mood swings. She will study nursing at a local college this fall.

Still, Cahalan laments the squandered years. “If my kid had asthma or leukemia, I’d want her labeled at an early age,” she said. “I feel like she lost her childhood . . . and we can’t ever get that back.”


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