Student Screening for Mental Health Is Hot Policy Topic

October 05, 2004 2 min read

A controversial report on mental health that proposed setting up a nationwide screening program in schools has stirred up concerns among patient advocates, parents, and some experts.

Concerns were raised when an article in the British Medical Journal suggested that the Bush administration might back the plan. But administration officials contend that is not the case.

The 22-member New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, which was established by President Bush in April 2002, reviewed research and testimony during a yearlong study and recommended in July 2003 that the administration consider implementing screening programs in schools.

“Schools are in a key position to identify mental-health problems early and to provide a link to appropriate services,” the report said. “Clearly, strong school mental-health programs can … help ensure academic achievement.”

But while advocates of mental-health-screening programs hailed the proposal as a step in the right direction, some experts in the field and parents argue that such an initiative would simply be a boon to the politically influential pharmaceutical industry.

“To the average person, looking for kids with emotional problems sounds like a good idea,” said David Oaks, the director of Mind Freedom International, which represents 20,000 members who have been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder or disability.

But the problem, he said, is that “the mental-health industry is globalizing, [and] there’s one approach that’s large and in charge—putting kids on drugs.”

Mark Weber

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, based in Rockville, Md., said that the commission’s proposal was still being reviewed by the SAMHSA, and that there were no plans to implement a nationwide screening program in schools.

“The science is not there to screen every child,” he said.

Mr. Weber added that the British Medical Journal article’s claims were “irresponsible.”

The Bush administration, he said, has proposed that Congress offer states money to build comprehensive mental-health systems, but that individual states would determine how the funds would be used and if schools would be a part of their efforts. A campaign to raise public awareness and reduce the stigma associated with mental-health issues is also in the works.

Some observers have suggested that the media attention and subsequent public reaction made the administration back down from a plan for school mental-health screening.

“The intent of the report is to guide the federal government, states, and communities into a system that is consumer- and family- driven,” Mr. Weber said in an interview last month. “Families have the power, ... [and] that’s where we need to leave it.”