Throughout last summer and into the fall the news crept across
websites and spilled onto talk radio: The Bush administration was
planning to screen every American child for mental-health problems
and put those deemed in need of help on powerful psychotropic drugs.
Parental rights would be taken away, and the stigma of mental
illness would stain the school records of innocent children.
Libertarians and conservatives, home-schoolers and psychiatric
rights groups, expressed their concerns.
Yet so far, the fears seem overblown - or at least premature. By
the time Congress passed its enormous spending bill late last fall,
only $20 million of new money was appointed as a grant to states to
explore new ways of coordinating their "fragmented" mental-health
services. The provision contained no mandate that the money be spent
to screen children.
But that hasn't kept critics from worrying about future moves.
"We're pretty encouraged because the federal [screening] program
doesn't exist yet," says Jeff Deist, a spokesman for Rep. Ron Paul
(R) of Texas, a leading congressional opponent of federally mandated
mental-health testing. But the congressman is concerned that the US
Department of Health and Human Services "will go forward and sort of
agitate for this" in the next budget cycle, he says.
"There's this modern tendency to overmedicalize everything and to
treat a rambunctious child ... or a sullen child as mentally ill
when that's just his personality or he's a high-strung kid," Mr.
Deist says. "We would rather be accused of being alarmist than just
stand back and let this gather quiet momentum."
Antiscreening groups point to a report from the New Freedom
Commission on Mental Health, appointed by President Bush in 2002, as
the source of their concerns. The report, issued in July 2003, spoke
of the benefits of widespread mental-health screening of Americans
of all ages. It also noted that schools provide a promising venue
for administering such evaluations for both students and adult
But some activists saw the report as a veiled recommendation that
could turn into a harmful policy. That interpretation became
widespread. In a memo last month, the Congressional Research Service
tried to clear up just what the report said.
"[T]he Commission did not recommend mandatory screening of all
children to identify those at risk of mental-health problems because
the research on screening for children is inadequate," wrote two CRS
researchers. The article added that "school mental- health programs
must provide any screening or treatment services with full attention
to the confidentiality and privacy of children and families."
The commission's biggest concern was that efforts to help those
with mental illness at the state and federal level were too
"fragmented" across different agencies, from the Social Security
Administration to Medicare and Medicaid, says Michael Hogan, who was
chairman of the now- disbanded New Freedom Commission, and current
director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health. …