Imagine that your daughter's school has called to inform you that her annual mental health exam suggests she has a mood disorder. What's more, her treatment requires each family member to fill out a psychological questionnaire. The survey is deeply personal, ranging from family history to drinking and sexual habits. Some of your answers could, if they're misinterpreted, indicate a higher risk factor for your daughter. Should you lie about being treated with anti-depressants? And if you tell the truth, who will see your records, now that they're permanently archived?
According to some human rights advocates and psychiatric abuse survivors, this sort of scenario could, if the Bush administration has its way, become commonplace. In fact, watchdogs on both the right and the left are worried that the compulsory mental health screening of every man, woman, and child in America -- along with mandatory drug therapy for all those deemed to have a disorder -- is just around the corner.
The concern stems from an executive order George W. Bush signed in 2002, establishing the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, an effort to study the U.S. mental health system and to recommend improvements. The final report, released in July 2003, calls for mental health screening in schools and primary health care settings. The document appears to be well intentioned, if overly ambitious, touting mental health intervention as a cure for the social ills of drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration. A road map for implementing the so-called New Freedom Initiative is reportedly in the works.
But an article about the report, posted last spring on the British Medical Journal's Web site (bmj.bmjjournals.com), alarmed both civil liberty advocates and civil libertarians. Citing ties between the Bush family and the pharmaceutical industry, the article implied that the New Freedom plan is a ploy to ramp up drug profits.
In the libertarian-leaning Chronicles (Oct. 2004), author B.K. Eakman, executive director of the National Education Consortium, worries that conservative and Christian students would be discriminated against if psychological screening becomes a federal mandate. To support his contention, he cites a 2003 National Institute of Mental Health and National Science Foundation study that found that 'traditionalists are mentally disturbed.'
It's hard to know what to make of such claims, in part because the mainstream media have all but ignored the issue. Mindfreedom.org, a coalition of those who say they've suffered abuse inside the mental health system, places some of the blame for the scarce coverage on the American Psychiatric Association, which allegedly cooperated with the Bush administration to remain silent on the subject.
In December 2004, though, Bush did sign the Prohibition on Mandatory Medication Amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The law prohibits schools from requiring students to take psychiatric drugs as a requisite for their education. And in October 2004, New Freedom Commission chair Michael F. Hogan penned a letter to The Washington Times, in response to a commentary titled 'Bush's Brave New World' that attacked the plan. Hogan stated that 'the commission did not call for mandatory universal mental health screening for all children. I am at a loss to explain why this misrepresentation persists, since it is at odds with the plain language of our report to the president.'
These assurances notwithstanding, many are still questioning why the government has chosen to intervene in the country's mental health in the first place. And while mandatory medication for minors has been prohibited, psychiatric testing and cradle-to-grave screening of family members are still possibilities, leading critics to worry that in this post-9/11 political climate the government wants to increase mental health services simply to get access to mental health records.