Opinion: Universal mental health screening would be a waste of resources

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Guest Opinion by Helen Timpone, lecturer at Department of Psychology and Counseling, Governor's State University
The Illinois Leader

OPINION -- It is difficult to believe that the Illinois General Assembly would pass legislation setting up mental health screening for children and expectant mothers.

Legislators may wish to take a screen on how well they understand the fluctuating temperaments of children and pregnant women before going on record for this initiative.

Children are moving targets, progressing at different speeds, in and out of multiple growth and development stages at all times. In the unlikely best-case scenario, one in which a child was given a correct diagnosis at the moment, he or she could be in another developmental stage by the time treatment was realized making the original correct diagnosis to be incorrect.

There is serious question about how efficiently service agencies schools or even private practice professionals could move to treat a child.

Are we inviting drug intervention as the quickest way to do something if a problem is suspected? The massive acceptance of drugging children is a frightening though when other interventions or simply tolerating difficult but normal growth stages would be much better.

Routine acceptance of using drugs to solve problematic child behaviors may make some difficult children more pleasant or social, but choosing such a course of treatment would compromise the legitimate use of prescription drugs for children who really need that method of treatment.

Instead of remaining a distinct, easily identifiable subset, children who truly need drugs would become part of the massive trend to use drug therapy. The seriousness of their conditions would be compromised in mass media advertising as well as within the systems in which they need distinct attention for their survival needs, rather than quality of life needs.

We should celebrate the fact that children develop differently, reaching important milestones at different ages. For instance, boys begin talking as early as 18 months or as late as three years, all within normal developmental range. If a little boy is a late talker, would he, through this proposed screening process, be deemed as one in need of medication?

Attempting to screen children for possible mental health challenges would be mind boggling as well as a waste of resources that should be used to benefit children in a more effective manner.

Have state legislators considered the impact of possible medical malpractice lawsuits in screening and the danger of being held accountable for advising treatment for subjective diseases?

What about the potential problem of children being coached by adults to pass or fail the screen for government-funded benefits such as untimed tests, free meds, or more medical attention as happens when a parent is plagued with Munchausen Syndrome?

Children typically try to answer an adult question with the answer that they believe the adult wants to hear. Their answers are more often than not far from what they may actually be feeling. Children can sense pressure, which prompts contamination of any objective test taking effort. They are adroitly sensitive to any adult verbal and non-verbal signaling as to importance during a screening, coloring the test results.

How well would the examiner know the child? Even well meaning adults are vulnerable when they get involved with children. Anxiousness to get in on the latest child-raising trend can compel experimentation, based on mental health screening results.

In the 1980s, children began suing their parents and teachers based on false sex allegations from years before. Will parents and teachers be part of the screening process for the children's sake?

There is also the sobering thought that school districts themselves could possibly be sued for a missed or mistaken diagnosis.

These issues should be seriously considered, along with the many others that have been raised as the state of Illinois prepares to take on the monumental task of screening the mental health of all children and expectant mothers.

[Helen Timpone, LCPC, NCC is a certified school counselor and supervised visitation facilitator. She lectures on the topic of child development and is in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Governors State University.]



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