Well-Being - Call to test mental health at age 7

27th September 2013 at 01:00
Use school screening to prevent serious illness, expert urges

Children should be screened for mental health problems at school from the age of 7, according to a public health expert.

Existing health checks to monitor issues such as obesity should be extended to include examining children's emotional states, so that potential mental health problems can be identified early and children given appropriate support, said Simon Williams, visiting scholar at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, Chicago.

Dr Williams, who was previously a clinical fellow at the University of Cambridge, said that early diagnosis would save significant sums of money, as well as helping young people.

"The idea is to use a school screening programme to recommend referral for further, more extensive assessment by a mental health professional," he told TES. "The aim is to normalise mental health as a spectrum and to move away from stigmatising mental illness.

"By making the test universally available in schools, we would be able to catch a large proportion of those children who have pre-clinical mental health problems before they have the chance to develop into more severe clinical disorders. The rationale is to catch potential ill health early and to identify those most at risk."

Dr Williams first proposed the idea in a piece for medical periodical the BMJ.

In his article, Dr Williams writes that the cost of treating mental health problems in the UK exceeds #163;21 billion a year. He says that about 75 per cent of adult disorders begin in childhood or adolescence and half of those could have been diagnosed before the age of 15.

He adds that a screening programme for seven-year-olds could be implemented for #163;18.5 million a year.

Lucie Russell, director of campaigns at mental health charity YoungMinds, said that screening would be a good idea if it was backed by sufficient support services.

"Current provision is patchy and ranges from high quality to not good enough," she said. "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."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said that the idea of mental health screenings for children was not currently under consideration.

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