Mental health screening in young children

A few days ago I read an article that reported that from July 1, three year olds will be screened for possible mental health problems as part of the normal developmental health checks conducted by GPs. It will cost $11 million over four years. There have been people who support this idea, as well as some criticisms and controversy surrounding the idea that three year olds will be labelled with mental illnesses under this scheme and that normal issues will be medicalised.

When I look at it, three years old does sound pretty young. Can you really pick up possible or early signs of mental health problems at that age? But at the same time, I wonder whether having help as a child if my problems had been picked up at about 4-6 years old, if it would have made a difference.

I had huge anxiety issues as a child. I was also very shy. I was terrified of attending school. My one and prominent memory of kindergarten was crying and vomiting because of the fear and anxiety I felt, and my father having to leave work to collect me. He was not happy at having to do so. I would’ve been 3-4 years old at the time.

My memories of year 1 involve more of the same sort of experiences. Crying almost every day for the first half of the year due to fear of school. Throwing up at home prior to leaving for school due to anxiety. Sobbing and begging to my parents to let me stay home instead. Having to endure being put into a situation five days of the week which induced terror and distress in me.

Years after I had left kindy, my mum bumped into one of the kindy teachers who’d had me as a student. Apparently I was rather memorable as she still recognised my mum. Based on my behaviour and what I was like then, the teacher asked my mother whether I still cried at school. This tells me that the extreme fear and anxiety I had was not typical of children of my age at the time. Yet I wasn’t given emotional support or help. Yes some young children may grow out of their issues it could then be argued mental health screening and early intervention at the age isn’t necessary, but what about those who don’t?

This kinda links in too with what I heard from a professor from Canada today talk about. I had the opportunity along with the other youth mental health organisation volunteers last night to hear Dr Shanker speak. He’s an expert in self-regulation in children. He spoke of how stress is anything that requires energy and some people just have a more sensitive nervous system. People then use up their energy resources trying to deal with the stress, and it can come out in externalising, internalising, cognitive, or risky behaviours. It will then affect the ability to self-regulate. Thus, it needs to be identified why the child is reacting in that way and try to calm the nervous system down. He also spoke of a bad back being no different to something like depression and anxiety, as both are derived from stress. My poor summary of what he said really doesn’t do it justice, but it was a very enlightening and fascinating talk, spoken with much clarity and was very engaging.

4 thoughts on “Mental health screening in young children

  1. This is an interesting concept. My first reaction was, ‘Wow, that is crazy and stupidly young’. But then, like you, looked back to my own experiences as a child. I have had insomnia all my life, I never slept as a child. I had huge anxieties about the house burning down and being robbed. I remember that most nights, I was up all night, and this was when I was 4 or 5. What if I had have been screened at 3? Would things be different for me now?

    Thanks for sharing, you have given me somethiing to think about.

  2. I don’t really agree with the screening of kids at age 3 – 3 is too young. 5 or 6 years old maybe, but I believe it will just cause an overdiagnosis of ADHD and anxiety in kids and labels are not always good. Especially the ADHD diagnosis – most 3 year olds are hyperactive at times (and they are also shy at times!). At three years of age you are still developing too much and things can change very rapidly.
    BUT I do like the idea in one sense because I strongly believe that many kids develop problems because of their parents, so I like the idea of “screening the kids”, so that you can also “screen the parents”.

    Note, I am not saying in any way that your parents contributed in anyway to any of your problems growing up – or now – but parents CAN contribute to mental health problems and I think it’s becoming more prominent these days because of the influences of drugs and alcohol etc on parents.

    (I was also a very anxious child!)

  3. This is really interesting, I think it’s a good idea as long as you don’t get over the top assessors, I know my life would’ve been very different if they’d done it when I was little x

  4. I feel like 3 is a bit too young as well. Maybe 5? I’m the same. I wondered after that talk too, what would it have been like if someone had picked up on my problems at that age? I used to faint when I got worked up, and I did a lot of crying too. I have lots of memories of banging my head against my bedroom wall, and I had a loooot of anxiety issues and perfectionists tendencies all through primary school.
    Good post, it’s certainly an interesting topic!

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