Angela Harrison, Education correspondent, at BBC News refers to an article for the British Medical Journal, in which Simon Nicholas Williams argues that screening pupils for mental health problems as young as seven would mean conditions could be diagnosed and treated earlier. This would prevent more serious social and economic problems developing in adolescence and adulthood, related to crime, unemployment, and suicide. He argues that this would be a more cost effective strategy than dealing with these conditions later.
This reminds me of the Early Years Collaborative and Scottish Minister Aileen Campbell who has said: “I want to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up and give every child the best start in life... Getting it right in the early years is the right thing to do for children and parents. By investing in development from the start, and preventing problems later on, the benefits go beyond families..."
Mr Williams has put another twist on this idea by recommending screening 7 year olds for mental health problems: Get involved with children earlier because it`s cheaper and will prevent serious social problems later. (For which there is not a shred of evidence.)
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education probably got it right when he said that this new initiative would be more likely to cause children and parents stress and anxiety than solve anything. Then there are the problems of labelling and the social stigma which follows a diagnosis and the fact that psychiatric services have a very poor record of successfully treating anybody with a serious mental illness. It is admitted by Williams in his article that a recent BMJ study suggested that school based cognitive behavioural therapy programmes may not be effective in reducing depressive symptoms. Regardless, he still puts forward his view that schools are the best place to screen for mental health issues and that socially there is much to be gained from that.
It is revealing that NICE has also got involved in the same narrative: The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) estimates that 80,000 children in the UK are now suffering with depression, and some of them are as young as five.
What is remarkable is that NICE arrived at this figure before any screening has taken place in schools, all of which leads me to believe these articles are full of spin.