Advocacy organizations and many Connecticut residents are united in opposing a bill mandating the psychiatric screening of children and teenagers in Connecticut.
S.B. 374, An Act Requiring Behavioral Health Assessments for Children, would require schools to administer a “confidential behavioral health assessment” students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 and home schooled children aged 12, 14 and 17, the results of which will only be shared with parents or guardians, according to the bill.
The bill was introduced by two New Haven Democratic legislators, Sen. Toni Harp and Rep. Toni Walker and was discussed at a public health committee hearing on March 8.
Although the bill is just one of several current proposals aimed at reforming behavioral health policy, it has received some of the strongest community response. Of the 126 people who submitted written testimony, 121 were opposed, three found fault with the bill and suggested improvements but didn’t specifically oppose or support, and just two supported the bill.
Opponents have expressed concerns over the potential cost of the program.
Dr. Amy Fogelstrom Chai submitted a cost estimate in her written testimony against SB 374. She explains that there are around 45,000 children in each grade in Connecticut, testing four grades annually means testing 180,000 children annually. If $100 was spent per child on these assessments, which Chai refers to as a “very low estimate,” then nearly $20 million dollars annually will be spent on the proposed assessments.
“The current budget proposal for FY 2014-15 eliminates the funding for twenty-two expanded school-based health centers for which monies were appropriated last year, limiting access to behavioral health services for children and youth instead of expanding them,” said Daniela Giordano, a public policy director for Connecticut’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in her written testimony.
Many of the testimonies referenced the Newtown tragedy as the driving force behind the proposed legislation.
“While all in our state are horrified by the tragedy in Newtown in December, I must agree with my colleague, Dr. David Bernstein, who provided testimony to the state advisory task forces regarding school safety and security. Dr. Bernstein aptly referred to the Newtown incident as a ‘black swan;’ that is, a very rare occurrence,” said Susan Berry, a Glastonbury clinical psychologist, in her written testimony. “In addition, if we are reviewing children’s mental health issues because of the Newtown incident, we should also remember that it is very difficult to predict, with accuracy, who will be violent.”
Aside from the financial constraints, residents asked their opinion feel the bill raises more questions than it offers answers.
“Are the schools equipped to do this?” said Kathleen Brochu, an administrative assistant and Berlin resident. “What will the liability be with missing a child?”
One Vernon resident echoed Brochu’s concerns about the school’s ability to administer the assessments.
“I think that behavioral health screenings on children in elementary through high schools will cause more harm than good in regards to the welfare of the children as well as administratively for the schools,” said Michael J. Wolter, who works as an assistant professor.
According to the bill, a “health care provider” will perform the assessments, leaving some wonder about the qualifications of the potential providers and how they’ll be chosen.
Also troubling is the bill’s failure to define or describe the assessments.
“Even well-designed tests can still result in false positives, which can potentially ‘brand’ children with a lasting stigma,” said Peter Wolfgang, president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action, one of the many groups opposing the bill. “A certain test may be appropriate for one child but not another.”
In his written testimony, Wolfgang calls the bill “intrusive” and points to laws already in place to identify and help emotionally disturbed children, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s “Child Find” provision.
One Glastonbury resident said that instead of helping students in need, the bill might actually make more students feel needlessly ill.
“America already suffers from being over-medicated and over-diagnosed,” said Cathy Jones, a history and political science graduate student. “We’re a nation of hypochondriacs, we don’t need mandatory testing to freak us out more than we already are.”
A few residents have even gone directly to the media, voicing their concerns and offering alternative solutions.
“We would be better served to make mental health services more widely available, not to mention affordable, to those who seek them,” said Laurel LaPorte-Grimes from Manchester, in a letter to the Hartford Courant. “We should support families going through domestic abuse and other dysfunctional situations, which can have a significant effect on the mental health of our children. We should do those things which are indeed hard, but which are much more likely to really solve the problem. This bill will not.”
Some feel SB 374 might exacerbate a problem already common in the mental health system.
“These days in society, any bit of abnormality displayed by the child is seen as a case to denounce them as a case study,” said Bridget Fuller, an East Hartford resident and stay-at-home mother of three, who shared that she herself has dealt with being labeled mentally ill by doctors in the past. She said students should be taught about psychological health so they could recognize their own symptoms and get help, if needed.
The committee has until April 5 to decide on the bill.