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.


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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  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    We are testing people to see if they are mentally and physical capable of working, We should by law then have to test everyone that is in work too.

    They may be ill and not know it.

    Test the commons first.

  • Comment number 140.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Whyt at 7? Why not earlier, some disorders can be detected earlier. Let's not start blaming the system, parents or the government. Any hints at mental disorder at a young age is a good thing and those parent that live in a 'bubble' may be able to get help sooner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    If we copied the less stressful but more successful school systems of mainland Europe eg. Finland we'd remove a big source of childhood neurosis.
    Obsessive targets, testing, top down management, causes our falling academic standards according to PISA, plus excess anxiety & mental fragility. Add UK's famous taboos eg. sex, nudity, no wonder Unicef rates us West's worst for kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    As a general rule I believe there is nothing much wrong with most children.

    It is the adults who have messed up the world, will continue to mess up the world and then have the stupidity to wonder why everything they touch has turned to tish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    As others have already said, we simply do not have the resources to back up assessments within schools. We should be taking a whole school, or holistic and positive approach to children's emotional wellbeing and mental health. However, Michael Gove's spokesman slated children's self-worth as a loony-left notion and the entire education system is now quite mad, so what hope is there for the kids?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Detecting mental health should start at birth, one would have thought?

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    If they have a method for detecting with 100% accuracy mental health issues then it sounds like a good idea.

    As i doubt there is such a test will the number of beneficial detections outweigh the number of false? How will they explain to children and parents that actually there is nothing wrong with them when they do get it wrong?

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I don't no how this will be funded considering that they won't give the HPV vaccine to boy despite HPV is known to cause males cancer as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    That's all we need, more Guardian readers. trying to teach us how to suck eggs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Many people live with the stigma attached to mental illness in this country that are picked up by mental health teams and agencies etcetera in late teens and adulthood. Do we really need our children examined like lab rats before this? Having been a psychiatric nurse and witnessed the horrendous side effects of anti- psychotic drugs prescribed over years - we wouldn't be helping them, believe me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    I new a seven year old once, he was absolutely mental!

    However, he has grown up now and is a successful lawyer. Just goes to show doesn't it.

    Further, can you imagine the stigma! that, and pumping a kid full of pharms, then the poor mite would be damaged for life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Really? Something else for the state to cover for the parents?
    Why don't we just institutionalise all kids and pay their parents some cash for having them.
    Leave mental health issues with parents, provide info on them, that's it.
    Checks/drugs, anything that can "later" be privatised should not be introduced. Unless we want all kids to be on something before they reach primary school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    What worries me is what do they class as a "mental health problem"? Kids at that age are trying to fit into society and find their place in their peer group and will do and say things that they think will help them fit in. This is perfectly normal behaviour but i suspect the mental health profession will try to pigeon-hole them and assign them some mental health tag.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    All of us would agree, to preserve a child, keep them safe, healthy and protected at all times is important, there are some the do not subscribe to that which is very, very worrying. However this idea may not be that far fetched, as if we do not get it right whilst people are still children, what will the future of our society be like? I do not want to old in that society think I will immigrate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I had issues due to abuse that were not picked up when I was a child - I would have been grateful for screening because i was far too frightened to tell otherwise

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    This is scary ... seems to be following the path of the USA where perfectly normal children are "diagnosed" with invented disorders and then pumped full of costly pharmaceuticals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    114. mostadome - I go with something changed in the food supply and not just GM foods - its globalization and switching to highly processed vegetable oils Keep in mind Europe in the past did have issues with ergot fungus on rye - also highlighted in a House episode where the patient was hallucinating because of ergot poisoning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Mental health experts often get a D- when diagnosing adults. I suspect they may often get an E when diagnosing kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    What am I menat to comment on if there is no detailed information on the content,delivery and follow up of this latest proposal?
    I first would want to know the exact parameters on which a definitive diagnosis and subsequent support are based. Mental health problems can be transient. Who will make the decision on the severity of presenting symptoms? And what support systems will be put in place?


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