Call for children's mental health checks at seven

 
Children and family in silhouette The financial cost and stigma could put people off, the academic said

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Children as young as seven should be tested in school for their mental health, a Cambridge academic has said.

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.

Heads say it is an "interesting idea".

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.

Stigma

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."

But Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said the idea was a "further reflection of the growing intrusion into our lives of the nanny state".

"Children, parents and schools should be trusted. This new initiative is as likely to cause children and parents anxiety and stress as it is to help anyone," he said.

'Looking for problems'

"Good schools, with high aspirations, inspirational teachers and a broad curriculum, will do far more to support children who may be vulnerable to mental health issues than a screening programme that will, inevitably focus on introspection and the looking for problems where none exist. God help the poor children if this latest initiative gains ground."

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.

 

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