In its rush to pass an omnibus federal budget, the U.S. Congress recently approved measures to possibly promote the involuntary screening and consequent medication of students for suspected mental illnesses. The legislation, which passed both the House and Senate, conjoins with two Bush administration pet projects: the president's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and No Child Left Behind.
In a telephone interview, lobbyist Michael Ostrolenk, M.A., explained that the Mental Health Commission's recommendations for universal and mandatory mental illness screening remain just that: recommendations. Individual states remain free to decide how or if they would implement them. Ostrolenk cites the example of the state of Illinois, which attempted to force screening protocols on all pregnant women and public school children. Public outcry forced that state to retreat. Nevertheless, President Bush and the Senate requested $44 million toward block grants to states to support universal and mandatory measures, although the House cut the allocation down to $20 million.
Several observers believe that the Republicans have caved into economic pressures, and accuse pharmaceutical companies of using their influence to receive favors from all levels of government responsible for mental health care. In July 7 of this year the Philadelphia Daily News reported that a government psychiatrist had filed a public interest lawsuit "charging major pharmaceutical companies, state officials and state contractors with public corruption, and fraud violations of civil and criminal law," alleging that the drug firms had essentially dictated the diagnostic criteria that state officials used for mental illnesses, skewing them in such a manner as to favor conditions that require psychotropic medication rather than counseling or psychotherapy. The article went on to cite similar lawsuits in several other states, as well as the firing of the original Pennslyvania whistleblower. Similarly, the British Medical Journal has published many reports about subsidized travel and honoraria for state officials in charge of the pharmacopeias of state-run prisons and mental hospitals. These perks were provided by drug company lobbyists, whose numbers exceed those of members of Congress.
According to data recorded by the independent Center for Responsive Politics, pharmaceutical manufacturers including Eli Lilly and Merck, and biomedical research companies such as Novartis Inc. stand out among the top campaign contributors to Idaho's national and statewide officeholders. As of press time, no members of the Idaho congressional delegation were available for comment on the issue. Yet in a state whose constitution exempts parents from immunizing their children on philosophical or religious grounds, the State Legislature's Health and Welfare Committees may decide to frustrate the wishes of their national leadership on this question.
Still Ostrolenk, who represents watchdog groups such as the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and the Health Information Center, remains concerned. "There's not going to be enough psychologists or therapists to treat the millions of children that they're now going to diagnose with so-called mental health problems. So the only way they're going to be able to deal with them is to drug them. You've already seen that with the increased number of children on Ritalin or anti depressants. The numbers are just increasing at a disturbing rate. They're medicalizing behaviors that are just natural to children."