Mental Health Screening: Public Service or Dangerous Marketing?
Chuck Ruby, Ph.D., Psychologist
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:
Mental health screenings are a key part of youth mental health. Approximately 50% of chronic mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% begin by age 24. At the same time, the average delay between when symptoms first appear and intervention is 8-10 years. Mental health screenings allow for early identification and intervention and help bridge the gap.3
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.
Keep in mind that childhood problems do exist, even if they aren’t illnesses. So, for instance, a child experiencing traumatic circumstances might withdraw from the world and that self-imposed isolation can have devastating effects. But this is not an illness called “depression.” It is an understandable problem and an expectable reaction to trauma.
The false positive problem occurs even with the most accurate of screening instruments. An instrument’s accuracy is stated as sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the rate at which the tool correctly identifies a person with the problem. Specificity is when the tool correctly identifies a person who doesn’t have the problem. Sensitivity and specificity rates of .80 are considered “levels that are reasonably good for a screening instrument.”4
But regardless of this “reasonably good” accuracy, when we screen for any low base-rate event, such as the problems that are subsumed under the label “mental illness,” we will necessarily have a large number of false positives. This results in many, many children being identified as the target of psychiatric intervention when there is no real problem.
To see just how dangerous this is, let’s look at the statistical nuts and bolts in the table below. Take a hypothetical population of 1,000 kids and screen them for depression with an instrument that has a .80 accuracy rate. According to the CDC, 3.2% of children between 3 and 17 years old have been diagnosed with depression.5 This is a 3.2% base-rate. With this data, we would get the numbers below.
* false positives
So out of 1,000 children and a 3.2% base rate of depression, there will be 32 children who actually are suffering from the problems labeled “depression” and 968 who aren’t. A screening instrument with sensitivity and specificity of .80 will correctly identify 26 of the depressed kids. It will also correctly identify 774 of the non-depressed kids. However, it will wrongly identify 194 of the non-depressed kids as depressed. This is a 88% false positive rate (194 ÷ 220 = .88).
The significance of this cannot be overstated. 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. Nevertheless, they would still be subjected to the attention and potential treatment of the mental health system, with all of the accompanying stigma and other harmful effects, such as the prescription of unnecessary psychiatric chemicals.
And what do you think would happen when the children or their parents disagree with the professional’s screening conclusion and become resistant to subjecting the child to treatment? Of course, it would very likely be seen as either a sign of anosognosia (lack of insight into one’s illness) or as parental neglect in refusing to get treatment for their children.
This is frightening.
There are about 74 million children and adolescents living in the United States.6 When using screening instruments like this, imagine the untold number of kids who are not suffering from the problem but who would nonetheless be a target of the mental health industry. If all of them were screened with this tool, millions would be falsely targeted! And, if you are skeptical about whether our children would be subjected to these harmful screenings, just remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all teenagers be screened for depression.
With the screening of real medical problems, such as cancer, there is a potential solution to this false positive problem. It is to conduct a more detailed examination of the patient with laboratory tests such as X-rays, CAT scans, and blood tests to determine if the disease is actually present.
But with the problems labeled “mental illness,” there is no follow up to the screening instrument because there is no internal dysfunction that can be detected with a more detailed examination. Even more in-depth psychological testing wouldn’t suffice since psychological tests are also screening instruments, they’re just more complicated. But, they do not assess internal malfunctioning.
Mental illness diagnoses refer to problems only, not bodily disease processes that cause the problems. In fact, the formal diagnostic guidelines in the DSM are screening instruments themselves! They are merely checklists of “symptoms.” In this sense, the DSM has the same false positive danger as does any other screening instrument. Using it to diagnose “mental illness” results in an overabundance of people wrongly branded with mental illness diagnoses. Yet, those people become a fertile market for the mental health industry.