Mental health checks at seven?

An academic from Cambridge has called for children as young as seven years old to be screened for mental health.

In an article for the British Medical Journal, Simon Nicholas Williams argues that screening pupils at that age would mean problems could be diagnosed and treated earlier. Mr Williams, from the university’s Institute of Public Health, said three-quarters of adult mental disorders were “extensions of juvenile disorders”. “If left untreated, these can lead to more serious social and economic problems in adolescence and adulthood, related to crime, unemployment, and suicide, for example,” he wrote.

He said early intervention and prevention of mental health problems should be aimed at young people. “Introducing mental health screening in schools could enable early diagnosis and treatment of childhood mental health problems and therefore reduce many of the costs associated with adolescent and adult mental health problems,” he wrote.

He said mental health problems cost the UK an estimated £105bn a year. “Physical health checks have been done in schools for more than a century, so why not mental health checks?”, he added.

Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), which represents most primary heads, said the idea was an interesting one. But any such scheme would have to be carefully handled, he said, with the checks carried out by experts. “I think we should be checking children for much more than whether they have mastered phonics,” he said. “The evidence suggests that the earlier we start checking people, the better. But schools themselves are not qualified to do this and health professionals would have to be involved.”

Mr Hobby added: “We would have to be quite careful about any labels and stigma attached to this. It would have to be done in a sensitive fashion.”

In his article, Simon Williams said the “stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis is likely a deterrent, particularly for parents”, as well as the financial costs involved. “However, a programme in which all children are screened, rather than just those who are traditionally deemed at risk, would likely have a de-stigmatising effect,” he said. “Although many mental health disorders are more common among children from lower socio-economic groups, others, such as anxiety disorders, are just as common, if not more common, among children from higher socio-economic groups.”

He said such screening could be carried out in groups “cheaply”, at an estimated cost of £27 per child, amounting to £18.5 million for all of the UK’s seven-year-olds.

Lucie Russell, from the Young Minds charity, said mental health screening was a good idea if there was good support for children “with emerging mental health problems”, but current provision was “patchy”. “Screening as part of early intervention is theoretically a positive step forward, but it must be backed up with comprehensive support and treatment for any identified children and their families,” she said.

I can see what the aim here is, but there is a niggling thought in my mind: what is going to happen to those who are diagnosed with issues, and what if those diagnoses prove to be inaccurate? This could be placing a label on a child which can have a serious effect on both the child and other children around them. Seven years old is the age where children start to understand everything around them, so it is most likely going to be difficult to handle. I do like the theory however. Anything that can resolve issues going into the teenage years or even beyond that before they can take a hold of a child must be a help rather than a hinderance, unless of course I’m missing something.

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