Ban on Mandatory Mental Health Screening

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Ban on Mandatory Mental Health Screening

If passed, a newly-reintroduced piece of legislation will keep federal funds from being used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socioemotional screening programs. The Parental Consent Act of 2011, now introduced in both Houses of Congress, H.R. 2769 by Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and S. 1800 by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), is designed to help protect children and families against the controversial and rapidly increasing use of mental health screenings in public schools. Such screenings, which may soon become mandatory for all children, are too often performed without parental knowledge or consent, and they frequently lead to dangerous childhood medication use.  When Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) first introduced the bill in 2009, he explained,

Already, too many children are suffering from being prescribed psychotropic drugs for nothing more than children’s typical rambunctious behavior. According to Medco Health Solutions, more than 2.2 million children are receiving more than one psychotropic drug at a time. In fact, according to Medico Trends, in 2003, total spending on psychiatric drugs for children exceeded spending on antibiotics or asthma medication.

Concerned parents who object to having their children forcibly medicated may be charged with child abuse. Take Maryanne Godboldo, for instance. Her 13-year-old daughter was taking Risperdol, a neuroleptic antipsychotic medication with many dangerous side effects. When Maryanne noticed that the medication was making her daughter’s condition worse, she decided to take advantage of alternate treatment options. Child Protective Services (CPS) charged Maryanne with medical neglect. They took custody of her daughter after a 12-hour stand-off in which CPS enlisted the help of a police SWAT team. Congressman Paul argues that such cases will become more common if tax dollars are used to fund universal mental health screenings in schools:

Many children have suffered harmful side effects from using psychotropic drugs. Some of the possible side effects include mania, violence, dependence and weight gain. Yet, parents are already being threatened with child abuse charges if they resist efforts to drug their children. Imagine how much easier it will be to drug children against their parents’ wishes if a federally-funded mental-health screener makes the recommendation.

This is not idle speculation. Former President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has already recommended a comprehensive system of screenings for all Americans, beginning in public schools. Numerous public schools already screen students for mental illnesses, and many more are doing so every year.

There are serious problems with this approach. For example, one popular program called TeenScreen checks for social phobia, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues using vague questions like these:

  1. Has there been a time when you felt you couldn’t do anything well or that you weren’t as good-looking or smart as other people?
  2. Have you often felt very nervous or uncomfortable when you have been with a group of children or young people, like in the lunchroom at school, or at a party?
  3. In the last year, has there been any situation when you had less energy than usual?

Nearly every normal high-schooler would have to answer the above questions with an affirmative — but that’s no indication of mental health difficulties.

Even TeenScreen’s creator, David Shaffer of Columbia University, admitted in a 2004 article that his widely-used test had problems. The test, he said, “would result in 84 nonsuicidal teens being referred for further evaluation for every 16 youths correctly identified.” Still, he continued, “many of these so-called false-positive cases may be experiencing painful depression symptoms . . . and are likely to benefit from treatment.”

Mental health screenings are frequently performed by the very companies which stand to benefit most from childhood medication use. Allen Jones, former investigator with the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General, argues that such companies are trying to make money, not help children. “TeenScreen was developed and promoted by persons with deep financial ties to makers of psychiatric drugs,” he said. A look at TeenScreen’s staff roster proves his point: founder David Shaffer has served as a paid consultant for Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and other psychiatric drug manufacturers. TeenScreen Director Laurie Flynn was previously the director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which receives most of its funding from drug companies, and advisory board member Michael Hogan worked for at least two companies that were heavily funded by drug companies. Indeed, TeenScreen admits that one of its priorities is to “connect” kids with mental health treatment. That very often means prescribing psychotropic drugs, though such drugs come with severe side effects and have not been found safe for childhood use. In September 2004 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed that more than two-thirds of the studies done on antidepressant use in children found that prescription drugs were no more effective than placebos. Positive trials were published only by the pharmaceutical industry.

Universal mental health screenings would be problematic in other ways, too. Though such screenings are advertised as a way to prevent teen suicide, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found “no evidence” that they are effective in reducing either suicide attempts or deaths. And while the schools that currently screen for mental health problems claimed to do so only with parental consent, many require only “passive” consent. If parents don’t sign a form explicitly stating that their child cannot take part in the program, consent is assumed. Others urge children to participate by offering movie passes or pizza parties.

The Citizens Commission on Human Rights International reported last fall that one federally funded violence prevention program already lists “intolerance” as a mental problem. Additionally, there are efforts underway to add “extreme intolerance” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used to determine mental health diagnosis criteria. Congressman Paul has said of this, “Because ‘intolerance’ is often a code word for believing in traditional values, children who share their parents’ values could be labeled as having mental problems and a risk of causing violence.” His Parental Consent Act is an attempt to combat this dangerous trend.