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Mandatory mental health screening threatens privacy, parental rights

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 20, 2004

On Sept. 9, the 'Ron Paul Amendment' was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 95-315.

The Amendment would have prevented the funds sought by an appropriations bill (HR 5006) from being used for the mandatory mental-health screening of Americans, including public schoolchildren.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a practicing physician for more than 30 years, campaigned against the new program on the grounds that it negates parental rights and would encourage the over-medication of children.

Prior to the House vote, Paul had vehemently denounced mandatory mental-health screening in a letter to fellow congressmen.

Paul wrote, "[P]sychotropic drugs are increasingly prescribed for children who show nothing more than children's typical rambunctious behavior. Many children have suffered harmful effects from these drugs. Yet some parents have even been charged with child abuse for refusing to drug their children. The federal government should not promote national mental-health screening programs that will force the use of these psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin."

The idea of nationally screening school children for mental health stems from the establishment of the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in 2002. Its mission is to "promote successful community integration for adults with a serious mental illness and children with a serious emotional disturbance."

The commission conducted a "comprehensive study of the…health service delivery system," which found mental health problems to be under-diagnosed.

A 2004 progress report outlines the government’s plan to assist those with disabilities, including mental health problems. The government intends to use government agencies and services — such as transportation, housing, and education "to tear down the remaining barriers to full integration [of the disabled] into American life."

Thus, as WorldNetDaily reports, the commission’s panel "recommended comprehensive mental health screening for ‘consumers of all ages,’ including preschool children…Schools, the panel concluded, are in a ‘key position’ to screen the 52 million students and 6 million adults who work at the schools."

The public schools would address "the mental health needs of youth in the education system" through "prevention, early identification, early intervention, and treatment." How early?

Many practical objections have been offered to the mental screening of the 52 million students and the 6 million adults at schools.

— Mental health diagnoses are subjective and, to be of value, must be formed by trained professionals who test and observe subjects over time. The expense and magnitude of screening 58 million people means diagnoses are likely to be made quickly and by poorly trained people.

— The criteria for diagnosing mental disabilities such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are vague and a matter of heated debate within the medical community itself.

— Political pressure can make schools prone to over-apply social programs, especially when they are connected to the continuation of funding.

— Medicating children for behavioral problems could easily become a form of social control. That is, school authorities could use medication to prevent behavior of which they simply disapproved, such as rebelliousness.

— The screenings may be used to force parents to put their children on psychiatric medication. Some parents who have refused to do so under current policies have been threatened or charged with "child abuse" for no other reason than their refusal.

— Many of the psychiatric medications administered to children have been only approved for and tested on adults. The long-term effect on developing children has yet to be determined.

—The known side effects can be severe. Indeed, at least two deaths have been attributed to prescribing Ritalin to children.

Critics also raise matters of principle. First and foremost is the question of parental rights. It is not clear what rights — if any — parents preserve over the medical treatment of their children. Will they be threatened with the removal of their child if they refuse to place a son or daughter on Ritalin?

Will children who resist medication be expelled from a school that is supported by their parents' taxes? If so, the government seems to be telling parents that education is a privilege for which parents must not only pay but for which they must also surrender medical control over their children.

And what of medical privacy rights? It defies credibility that psychiatric records on tens of millions of school children would be covered by anything resembling patient-doctor confidentiality. Public school records that include intimate details of medical history may well follow children into adulthood.

Accusations have also been voiced: specifically, that the program is driven by political-pharmaceutical alliances that benefits drug companies.

Critics point to the fact that the Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP) has been used as a model program.

But, according to whistleblower Allen Jones, an employee of the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General, TMAP promotes "a comprehensive national policy to treat mental illness with expensive, patented medications of questionable benefit and deadly side effects, and to force private insurers to pick up more of the tab."

The bill has moved onto the Senate, where it will be heard before the end of the year.

Even for those who advocate the medication of problem children, this measure contains too many uncertainties and possibilities of abuse.

Hopefully, the Senate will find a champion to call out for an amendment similar to that proposed by Rep. Ron Paul.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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