Activists Seek End of Mental Health Screening Law

Published December 1, 2006

Two years after a new law was passed in Illinois creating the framework for schools to screen students for mental health disorders, the state has saved more than $44 million in hospital costs, according to a report released in early October.

But some groups say the alleged cost savings do not justify a program under which schools are overstepping their authority. They also say it imposes a mandatory, universal plan to screen all children from birth through 18.

The opposition has assumed greater urgency now that federal grants for implementing the law are beginning to materialize.

With psychological studies indicating one in five children is either anxious, moody, or disruptive, some educators and lawmakers focused on children’s mental health issues are convinced public policy must address the issue. Without early intervention and effective treatment, they say, troubled children may fail in school, be unable to find acceptable employment, and thus face poverty in adulthood.

State Standards

The Illinois law integrates Social and Emotional Learning Standards into the state’s public school system. The standards outline grade-specific, measurable performance on social and emotional development expectations for Illinois children under age 18.

Every school district in the state is required to integrate the standards into its curricula.

Those with the funding to implement the standards are required to use them in their annual assessments, the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership told Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in its annual report, released October 10.

Wrong Role

Under the Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, more than 15,226 Illinois schoolchildren were screened in 2005 for “mental health crises”–sometimes verbally, and other times through a computerized touch-screen survey, to ascertain feelings of depression, isolation, whether they are being bullied, and other personal questions.

Of those surveyed, 5,342 low-risk youngsters were “able to be stabilized and served in their community,” saving taxpayers $44.1 million in hospitalization costs, according to the report.

But many mental health professionals and parents’ rights groups argue this is not a proper role for the schools. Opponents of the law say a better approach is to let private medical insurance cover the services and to increase public assistance for mental health care for the uninsured, as well as ensuring only qualified people assess the students and guard their private information.

Concerns over Stigma

Lee Carty, communications director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a 34-year-old Washington, DC-based advocacy group for the mentally disabled, said the two main concerns over school-based mental health screening are the potential to stigmatize students by inaccurately assessing them as having mental health problems, and using available funds solely to screen, rather than to financially assist, those who have serious mental health needs.

“Identifying those with mental health needs is one issue, but providing them with needed services is something completely different,” Carty said. “Schools shouldn’t be screening children–qualified mental health professionals should be.”

One of the Bazelon Center’s key concerns is to reduce the stigma of mental health care. The Bush administration rooted its 2002 New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in advocates’ concerns that children were being unfairly stigmatized by their unmet needs. The commission’s goal of identifying and eliminating unfair policies ushered in children’s mental health acts nationwide.

In 2003, Illinois was one of the first states to pass such a law. Although the Bazelon Center opposes mandatory screening in schools, the group advocates ensuring those who have been diagnosed with mental disorders get the proper treatment.

“Parents, teachers, and others may fear that once identified, a mental health diagnosis will influence the way a child is treated,” the Bazelon Center states on its Web site. “Parents may also fear they will be blamed for their child’s mental disability. As a result, families may not seek services.”

Irate Parents

Many psychologists, pediatricians, and parental rights advocates, as well as parents themselves, say the law should show more concern for privacy and family rights.

In 2006, proposals to require schools to obtain written parental consent before screening a minor for mental health were stonewalled in the Illinois legislature.

A sponsor of the original bill, state Rep. Patti Bellock (R-Hinsdale), worked with pro-family groups in the most recent legislative session to amend the bill to require parental involvement. Parents’ rights advocates had pointed out Bellock’s legislation did not specifically require parental consent for screening when the bill passed three years ago.

“While we want to make sure those children needing mental health care are not overlooked, it is important that parents be involved,” Bellock said.

The amendment failed to reach a floor vote in the Senate. At press time, Bellock had no concrete plans to reintroduce it, saying a public education effort is needed first.

Fran Eaton ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who reports on family issues and education alternatives.

For more information …

“Frequently Asked Questions About the ICMHP and the Children’s Mental Health Plan,”

S.B. 1951, Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003,

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law,

President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health,