Every child should undergo mental health checks at school from the age of seven to identify anxiety disorders, anger problems and other mental health conditions, experts have said.
A study published in the British Medical Journal recommends that pupils should be asked to complete regular tests throughout their schooling to assess their emotional and psychological health.
The checks, administered by school counsellors or specially trained staff, would identify children with depression, anxiety, anger and disruptive behaviour, at a cost of around £18 million a year, experts said.
Researchers said three-quarters of adult mental illness began in childhood, and that monitoring and cases at a younger age could mean earlier treatment, and intervention before problems worsened.
But charities were cautious about the idea – with some saying that seven was too young to identify serious mental health problems, while others said it was no use diagnosing such illness unless more services were set up to help young people.
In the BMJ paper, Simon Williams, a clinical fellow in public health from Cambridge University, wrote: “Research shows how early intervention at schools may be an effective strategy to reduce the burden of disease from depression in children and adolescents.”
He said the same checks were able to identify anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and those at risk of suicide, allowing intervention and treatment.
“Offering routine mental health checks in schools is one way to ensure that all children get equal access to resources for the prevention or early diagnosis of mental health problems. The next step should be a trial to pilot and evaluate the short term outcomes of a routine mental health check in UK schools,” the paper recommends.
Mental health problems are estimated to cost the UK more than £100bn a year, including £21 billion on health and social care.
Researchers said that while many mental health problems are more common in lower socio-economic groups, others, such as anxiety, occurred at least as much among middle-class families.
A universal screening programme would mean children did not feel stigmatised by being asked to undergo tests, said Mr Williams, who is also a visiting school at Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.
Researchers said such tests, which ask children to respond to a series of questions about their emotional state, could be administered at a cost of around £27 per child.
Parents could be offered the opportunity to “opt-out” from the programme, they said.
Mental health charities expressed reservations about the proposal.
Paul Jenkins, CEO of the charity Rethink Mental Illness said: “While I agree with the principle that mental health should be taken just as seriously as physical health by schools, seven years old seems too young. Most mental health problems usually first begin to show in teenage years and serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar tend to first present themselves in the late teens and early twenties.”
He said attempts to identify mental health problems should focus more on teenagers, than younger children.
Lucie Russell, Director of Campaigns at YoungMinds said: “Mental health screening Is all very well if the services are there to respond to and support children with emerging mental health problems. Current provision is patchy and ranges from high quality to not good enough. 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.”
The government has backed a drive to tackle the stigma of depression and anxiety , with a Time to Change campaign, aimed at children in schools and youth clubs and via social networking websites, backed by sports celebrities.
Official figures suggest one in four people will experience mental health problems during their lives.
A DoH spokesperson said: “This is not something currently under consideration. However, we and the Department for Education would seek independent, evidence-based advice from the UK National Screening Committee before introducing mental health screening for children.”
“We want all children to have good, safe mental health care, which is why we are investing £54 million into improving access to mental health treatments for children and young people.”
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