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Screening a child's mind

Should every child be tested for mental-health problems? Although there are no present plans, a federal report stirs fears the US will require it eventually.

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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 school workers.

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