Mental Health Screening: Public Service or Dangerous Marketing?

“A screening instrument with sensitivity and specificity of .80 … When using a screening instrument like this, nearly 9 out of every 10 children who are identified as depressed wouldn’t really be suffering from that problem.”

Writing (within an American context) in the March 2019 Bulletin of the International Society for Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry, Chuck Ruby says:

“In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged that children be screened for autism as early as three years old.1 In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that all teenagers be screened for depression.2 The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also supports widespread mental health screening …

… To the ill-informed, these pronouncements appear to be of great public service. Who could argue the virtues of identifying mental health problems in our children as early as possible so that we could offer them assistance in avoiding a life of suffering?

However, to those willing to question the conventional wisdom, and think critically about the matter, quite a different picture emerges. Screening tools are dangerous to our children, but they are helpful to the mental health industry by increasing the potential market of consumers.

Whereas it is true that mental health screening is a cost-effective substitute for full psychological testing, it nonetheless presents a significant danger. This is the danger of false positives. A false positive is when a screening tool wrongly identifies a child as having a problem (e.g. the DSM definitions of depression, autism, anxiety, etc.) when, in fact, the child doesn’t have that problem …”

Read more here.

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0331-children-autism.html
  2. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/02/26/588334959/pediatrians-call-for-universal-depression-screening-for-teens
Mental Health Screening: Public Service or Dangerous Marketing?
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