Bush Wants to Screen All Children for Mental Illness
Keith Hoeller, Ph.D.
September 19, 2004

(Editor, Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry, Seattle,WA;
Recipient, 2002 Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties)

If President Bush gets his way, when your child enters elementary school, he or she will be subject to a formal, mandatory determination of his or her mental fitness.

This is because President Bush has placed into his "Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Bill of 2005" (HR 5006) a proviso for the federal government to begin spending $20 million as an incentive for the states to screen all schoolchildren for "mental illnesses" and place them on "treatment."  News of this proposal first appeared in the British Medical Journal in June of this year.

Why do all American children need to be screened for the possibility that they need to be placed on powerful mind-altering psychiatric drugs?

We all know the standard answers given by the various branches of the mental health movement, from the American Psychiatric Association to the Nationally Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD).  These children have been discovered to have a "mental illness," which prevents them from learning "normally".  This "chemical imbalance" in their brains is corrected by psychoactive drugs, which the child will need to take daily throughout their childhood years, and perhaps well into adulthood. 

Not surprisingly, all of these mental health groups are heavily funded by the very same companies whose drugs they recommend.

Currently, when teachers detect symptoms of "mental illness" in some children having learning or discipline problems, the schools refer those children for psychiatric evaluation.  Psychiatrists and school psychologists then diagnose most of these children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or depression.  The children are then prescribed drugs (Ritalin, Prozac, etc.) and their academic performance and behavior supposedly improves.

Even the Appropriations Committee Report says that President Bush's proposed $20 million is less than needed to start the nationwide program; if passed, this bill is likely to become a multi-billion dollar, unfunded mandate for the states.

Many thoughtful professionals in the mental health field, however, have developed an alternative view of why millions of children are being drugged in our schools.  From psychiatrist Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) to journalists Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky's The Myth of the Hyperactive Child and Other Means of Child Control (1975) to psychologist Diane McGuinness's When Children Don't Learn: Understanding the Biology and Psychology of Learning Disabilities (1985) to psychiatrist Peter Breggin's Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren't Telling You About Stimulants for Children (1998) to psychologist David Stein's Ritalin is Not the Answer: A Drug-Free Program for Children Diagnosed with ADD or ADHD (1999), all point out that these children are perfectly healthy by all current physical tests and they do not "need" drugs.

Why then are millions of American children being drugged?

Corporal punishment as a means of school discipline came under attack in our schools in the 1960s; New York City banned it in 1965 and the states followed over the next three decades.   Ritalin was approved for use with children by the Food and Drug Administration around 1960,  and quickly became the alternative form of discipline.

Unruly children were no longer seen as bad kids needing punishment; they were now seen as mentally ill children needing medication.  School administrators and their paddles were replaced by school psychologists and their diagnoses.

(While I am not in favor of corporal punishment as a means of  discipline in the schools, I do not see medication as a form of chemical restraint as either a scientific or humanitarian step forward.  Professional teachers ought to be able to solve discipline problems without either hitting or drugging their students.)

The success of medication, however, is belied by the fact that these students and their parents continue to ask for exemptions from normal educational tests and standards and recent research shows they continue to have attention problems well into adulthood, despite years of medication.

On September 10, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a physician, introduced an amendment to President Bush's budget bill that reads:  "None of the funds made available in this Act [HR 5006] may be used to create or implement any new universal health screening program."

Apparently, the rush to medicate America's schoolchildren is a bipartisan issue.  Mr. Paul's amendment was defeated by a House vote of 315 to 95 (23 abstained).  It now moves to the Senate where, given Democratic support of the mental health movement, passage would seem to be assured.

President Bush's plan runs in the opposite direction of recent trends in such states like Colorado, which are trying to take teachers and schools out of the business of diagnosing children with mental illnesses.

But unless the American people quickly tell President Bush and their Senators in Congress to oppose this universal mental health screening plan for children, we are likely to have millions more perfectly healthy children being told they have a "brain disorder" and taking lifelong psychoactive drugs.

Mental health providers and the drug companies will surely profit from Bush's plan.

But parents' rights and children's liberties will suffer the consequences.