Fierce opposition arises to mental health screening in schools Sunday,
September 18, 2005
By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- Back in 2003, a federal commission created by President
Bush recommended improving and expanding mental health programs in
schools to provide help as early as possible to students with learning
problems or those who might turn violent or disruptive.
The commission highlighted one means of early diagnosis, the Columbia
University "TeenScreen" program, that allows students -- with parental
permission -- to get a mental health "check-up" via a computer-based
questionnaire before graduating from high school.
The commission's 86-page report included this suggestion among a long
list of recommendations to improve the U.S. mental health system. The
report attracted little attention outside mental health circles.
But over the past two years, a cottage industry of fiery opposition has
grown up around the proposal to expand mental health programs in the
schools and has become a popular rallying cry for conservatives who see
it as unwarranted government intervention in family life.
Opponents of school-based mental health programs point to parents who
say their children have been misdiagnosed with problems such as
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and forced to take
medication under pressure from school officials.
To these parents, the commission suggestion to "improve and expand''
school mental health programs is the first, inexorable step toward
mandatory school mental health screening for all students, and mandatory
medication for many, despite repeated assurances by commission members,
school officials and congressional experts that this won't happen.
Led by groups like Ablechild.org and EdAction, these parents want to
prohibit schools from having anything to do with the mental health of
their students, saying it is the job of parents to ensure their
As a first step, the groups are pushing Congress to pass legislation,
sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., and supported by House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to prohibit any federal funding for mental
health screening of students without the written consent of their
"If [this legislation] is passed, it will prevent wasteful and
potentially devastating federal funding while safeguarding the informed
consent rights of all parents in what is a most serious matter -- their
children's health and safety," said Patricia Weathers, president and
co-founder of Ablechild.org.
The educators and medical professionals on the other side of the debate
agree parental consent should be required for screenings. But they also
think it's worth studying the idea of promoting voluntary screenings to
get help for children who need it as early as possible.
"There is this curious coalition of people who are concerned about stuff
that we didn't recommend, and are making a big noise about it,''
said Michael Hogan, director of the Ohio Mental Health Department and
chairman of what was then called the New Freedom Commission.
"The core thing that the commission was concerned about is the fact that
a lot of these mental health problems are pretty clearly problems of
childhood and adolescent onset.... Added to this is the fact that most
children never get to see a mental health specialist.
"The fundamental logic of what the commission said is that we should
take steps to facilitate access to care where children are.''
The debate over school screenings is just part of a larger discussion
over the role schools should play in ensuring children's mental heath.
Many educators point to a clear connection between mental health and
"There are a whole slew of intra-personal variables that contribute to a
kid's ability to learn and are heavily related to their academic
success,'' said Stacy Skalski, public policy director for the National
Association of School Psychologists.
"There are also inter-personal variables. Kids don't come into the world
knowing how to relate to others. They need to learn that.''
Bruce Hunter, a veteran policy official with the American Association of
School Administrators, said it's clear "the education business is tough
enough without getting into the mental health business.
"But if a kid is going to beat the hell out of other kids regularly, and
is disrupting the classroom, that's a child that needs some mental
health assistance. One of the things that our members have expressed is
a rising concern about students' mental health, and the ability to get
them help when they have a problem,'' Hunter said.
A complicating factor is that the debate over school mental health
problems has become enmeshed in the vehement opposition of some people
to medicating children for depression, hyperactivity and other problems.
These opponents point to the nasty potential side effects of some
commonly prescribed drugs, including suicide, and argue that they simply
aren't safe for children.
Hogan and others supporters of school mental health programs agree that
more long-term testing should be done on antidepressants and other
emotion-altering drugs prescribed for children and teens.
"We [commission members] recommended that the scientists and regulatory
officials get on top of the safety issue,'' Hogan said.
Weathers, of Ablechild.org, is among those who believe more attention
should be paid to children's nutrition and behavior management, instead
of "being so quick to prescribe a drug." Her group supports legislation,
sponsored by Rep. John Kline, that would prohibit schools from requiring
parents to have their children medicated to attend classes.
Kline's bill would expand protections in the Individuals with
Disabilities Act, which prohibited schools from requiring special
education students to take certain medications, to all students. The
bill also would cover more types of medication than in the disability
Weathers said she was pressured into medicating her then first-grade son
after a school psychologist diagnosed him with attention deficit
disorder. The medication eventually made him psychotic, but when she
stopped giving it to him the school reported her to state children
protective officials for child abuse, she said.
A lawsuit brought by Weathers against school officials is pending; her
son, meanwhile, is now 15 and "doing fine," she said.
"We have 1,000 stories like this,'' Weathers said. "Our group is not
saying that children don't have attention or behavior problems. Some
kids do. But why should we force parents to drug their children so they
can attend school?"