June 27, 2004 – A new plan by the Bush administration to test the nation's public school population for mental disorders and treat them with controversial drugs has raised an alarm among some medical science watchdogs and members of the mental health community.
The White House is expected to announce a mental health and disability initiative that recommends the screening and treatment of the countryâ€™s K-12 students. The plan is based on a Texas program a government whistleblower has called "a Trojan horse" for pharmaceutical companies.
As first reported by bmj.com, the website for the medical news weekly the British Medical Journal, the plan is derived from findings by the Presidentâ€™s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, a committee of doctors and mental health care professionals established in 2002. Published by the New Freedom Initiative (NFI), the report recommends states start testing for and treating mental disorders as early as possible, focusing on students, who can be easily accessed in the public school system.
The mental health component of the plan is based on the Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP), which was engineered during Bushâ€™s tenure as governor. An algorithm is a flow chart that helps psychiatrists identify and medicate a patientâ€™s condition.
The New Freedom Initiative reported that "despite their prevalence, mental disorders often go undiagnosed," and recommended a screening program for "consumers of all ages," including pre-school children. The commission found that schools are in a "key position" to influence the phenomena of young children being "expelled from preschools and childcare facilities for severely disruptive behaviors and emotional disorders." To do so, the NFI said that "state-of-the-art treatments" were in order, and praised TMAP for showing "results in better consumer outcomes."
The NFI plan "doesn't have the Orwellian goal of drugging the populace for a political purpose; it's the Orwellian goal of drugging the populace for an economic purpose." -- Allen Jones, whistleblower
The American Psychiatric Association, which itself receives some funding from drug companies, has hailed the commissionâ€™s conclusions as a sound preventative approach to dealing with mental illness.
Critics of the plan, however, point to strong connections between the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and the pharmaceutical industry, and they contend that the plan will be a financial boon to drug companies while compromising the mental health of the nationâ€™s children.
Holistic mental health advocate David Oaks, director of MindFreedom, a coalition of groups that campaigns for people diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities, says the issues of child mental health are not only more complicated than just testing for disorders and putting kids on drugs, but also colored by powerful societal pressures and millions of dollars in drug revenues. Oaks says the presidentâ€™s plan amounts to little more than "No child left undrugged."
"It's very unimaginative. The idea sounds good: get help for the kids," Oaks said. "But the mental health machine tends to label, label, label." The labeling, said Oaks, all too often stigmatizes children as "abnormal."
"We're not happy to say the least," said Patricia Weathers, president of Ablechild: Parents for Label and Drug Free Education. "It's going to increase the drugging of children."
Oaks says he believes the template for the NFI's plan originates in the kind of extreme treatments misdiagnosed patients suffered in "the back wards" of clinics and asylums of the past, like forced drugging or electroshock therapies.
"This [has] been going on for years," said Oaks. "The psychiatric model [of the past] has been mainstreamed. And now, the system's coming for all of us."
Labeling, says Weathers, places a great deal of stress on families to raise a "normal" child. "It's almost like a parent is beaten down. You want [your child] in a mainstream school, not in a special needs school."
Weathers said her own son was dismissed from the public educational system because of her refusal to continue to drug him at the school system's request after school officials diagnosed him as having ADHD.
"Parents are losing their children" to drugging and labeling regimens, she says. "We need to look at the underlying causes, and not be so quick to think a child has mental problems.
"Instead of saying [a child is] having trouble reading, and giving him an educational resource, they say, â€˜oh well, he's ADDâ€™," she said. In the case of her son, Weathers said he had physical conditions, among them anemia, that may have been hindering his educational progress.
Criticism of the NAI plan, or at least the blueprint for it, has not been limited to the grassroots. In 2002 Allen Jones, a former investigator for the Office of the Inspector General in Pennsylvania, had been looking into the propriety of an off-the-books account that originated within the Pennsylvania Department of Mental Health. According to Jones, when he went to the New York Times and bmj.com with accusations that the drug company Janssen may have been attempting to influence the formation of a TMAP-style test and treat plan, he was told to "quit swimming upstream." When he refused to quiet down, he was fired, he added.
In a whistleblower report posted on the Law Project for Psychiatric Rightsâ€™ website, Jones elaborated on his charges, and explained that during its pilot stage, TMAP was packed with doctors who had strong ties to the drug industry. Jones said that ties to the drug companies gave them a financial incentive to recommend expensive, brand name drugs,
rather than cheaper comparable medicines.
Jones also writes that a number of the New Freedom Initiative for Mental Health Commission members were linked to TMAP's founding or are advocates for the program's expansion in states like Maryland and Ohio.
The NFI plan, said Jones, "doesn't have the Orwellian goal of drugging the populace for a political purpose; it's the Orwellian goal of drugging the populace for an economic purpose."
Nationally, pharmaceutical companies have been generous in doling out campaign contributions to the former Texas governor and his party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical industry has given President George W. Bush $764,274 so far this election cycle, making the president the number one recipient of campaign donations of either party from the pharmaceutical industry.
Number two and three respectively are New Jersey Congressman Mike Ferguson and North Carolina Senator John Burr, each of whom are situated on the Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Health, which oversees mental health and research, biomedical programs, Medicaid, and food and drug policies. Presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry has also received campaign contributions from the industry, with just over $149,000 in donations.
This mix of money and politics is hardly helpful for members of the mental health issues community and their advocates, said Oaks. Instead, he said, "Imagine the whole environmental movement funded by the oil industry."