by JAMILA RIZVI
Are we over-medicalising kids? What would a mental health check on a toddler even INVOLVE? And is this a total waste of time and money?
Not so fast. The idea of mental health checks on three year olds is confronting and confounding. But let’s take a breath and work out what’s really going on.
Back in 2008, the then Rudd-led Labor Government introduced the Healthy Kids Check. It’s a screening test for 4 year olds, which helps detect a whole range of things related to kids’ health and wellbeing.
As part of the test, the doctor checks out all of the basics - height, weight, eyesight, hearing, oral health, bathroom habits and allergies. It helps identify lifestyle risk factors that might affect a child, discover possible delays in development and to catch any early signs of serious illness.
Sounds sensible enough. That’s Government money being well spent, right? Totally uncontroversial.
Now the Government has announced they’re going to move the test so it happens a year earlier. Again sounds sensible – the earlier we detect any developmental problems in kids, the better.
But they’ve also announced that from July they’ll be expanding the test to check for early signs of mental illness.
Mental illness checks for toddlers? Now THAT is controversial. And everyone is weighing in.
Jill Stark from the Sydney Morning Herald writes:
THREE-YEAR-OLDS will be screened for early signs of mental illness in a new federal government program that will consider behaviour such as sleeping with the light on, temper tantrums or extreme shyness as signs of possible psychological problems.
The Healthy Kids Check – starting on July 1 – will be predominantly conducted by GPs, who will refer children with troubling behaviour to psychologists or paediatricians.
The program is expected to identify more than 27,000 children who the government believes will benefit from additional support, but who some doctors say will be wrongly labelled as having a mental illness.
The test, although not compulsory, will form part of a check for developmental problems such as hearing, eyesight and allergies. Previously it was conducted on four-year-olds but has been brought forward a year and for the first time will include screening for mental health problems, with doctors to receive training before it is introduced in the next financial year.
Professor Frank Oberklaid, who is in charge of devising the new criteria for the mental illness test has defended the changes, saying:
“The critics are worried that we’re going to slap diagnoses on three-year-olds and treat them with drugs, but this is not the point of the exercise. Many parents and preschool teachers face behaviours in children that are challenging and cause stress and distress. Thankfully many of these are transient, but we can’t predict in a particular child which ones are going to disappear and which ones are going to go on and cause mental health problems.”
But President of the Australian Medical Association Steve Hambleton is warning that:
“We have to be careful we don’t medicalise normal behaviour and that’s a real caution with children. There are genuine kids who need extra support to help them integrate into normal kindergartens and classrooms, and a lot of the funding for that is driven by diagnoses, so there’s a perverse incentive to diagnose conditions like autism. There are kids who need it but we don’t want to make normal kids abnormal.”
What do you think? Will these new tests help prevent the development of mental illness, which is seriously affecting far too many kids as they move into their teen years? Or will it just mean putting medical labels on perfectly normal childhood fears and anxieties?