Mental Health Laws Pose Growing Threat, Parents Say

Published December 1, 2006

Illinois may have been the first state to pass a law making mental health screenings a regular part of the public school system, but it’s not the only one. Earlier this year, similar laws were passed in Michigan and New York, and one in Indiana is already the subject of a federal lawsuit.

Two years ago, Michael and Theresa Rhoads’ 15-year-old daughter came home from her Mishawaka, Indiana school and asked about two mental disorders a computerized program called TeenScreen had determined she had. Outraged over what they saw as an invasion of their daughter’s privacy, the Rhoads sought legal counsel from the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties legal group based in Tennessee.

A firestorm followed as mental health screening became the topic of local talk shows. Parents led a charge against the Indiana measure. State Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Lakeville) is now working to repeal Indiana’s two-year-old children’s mental health program, which was modeled after Illinois’.

Parental rights advocates statewide were encouraged in late October when the Indiana Mental Health Committee opposed mandatory screening for the state’s children, although it did recommend the state board of education continue to address mental health issues. The overall effect of the decision was basically to water down the program.

Growing Threat to Privacy

In October, Karen Hayes, director of the Illinois chapter of Concerned Women for America, and Minnesota pediatrician Dr. Karen Effrem went to Washington, DC to share with federal lawmakers their concerns about the Federal Mental Health Action Agenda–a collaboration of several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, and Social Security Administration.

The federal group lays out a blueprint for destigmatizing mental health disorders through programs such as TeenScreen, the computerized touch-screen survey that diagnosed the Rhoads’ daughter.

Hayes and Effrem expressed concern that state by state, children’s mental health screening could develop into an inescapable national program over time.

“[The Federal Mental Health Action Agenda has] resulted in the promotion of a whole series of federal grants and programs to the states for the mental health screening and intervention of children beginning in infancy, despite documented problems with the scientific validity, safety, effectiveness, and cost of both the screening and the associated interventions,” Effrem told lawmakers.

“In addition, there are grave concerns regarding whether the federal government should be involved in something that has such profound implications for individual autonomy, parental authority, freedom of conscience, and privacy,” Effrem said.

Parents should guide their children’s physical and psychological health care, Effrem said. As a pediatrician, she believes decisions about a child’s care are between the parents and their chosen physician, and should not involve the government.

Fran Eaton