House Hearing out of Step with President Bush & Surgeon General

Statement Of Darcy Gruttadaro, Director NAMI Child & Adolescent Action Center

May 06 2003

Today’s hearing by the Committee on Education & the Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform in the House of Representatives on "Protecting Children: The Use of Medication in our Nation’s Schools" represents yet another exercise that will generate sensational headlines and alarm parents, while obscuring the true nature of a public health crisis—in a way that trivializes mental illnesses in children and the need for early identification and treatment.

This is the third House hearing on the topic, skewed against science, against treatment, and against principles of partnership in communities.

On September 29, 2000, the oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce held a hearing on the alleged "overmedication" of children with ADHD. On September 26, 2002, the full House Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the same topic. Today, it is the Subcommittee on Education Reform. Here we go again.

Unfortunately, all these hearings are focusing on largely anecdotal and unsubstantiated claims that our nation’s children are being overmedicated with psychotropic medications – when well documented reports and studies show that the overwhelming majority of children with mental illnesses are never identified and fail to receive treatment.

That is the concern of the U.S. Surgeon General.

It also is the concern of President Bush, who last year declared: "Millions of Americans, millions, are impaired at work, at school, or at home by episodes of mental illness. Many are disabled by severe and persistent mental problems. These illnesses affect individuals, they affect their families, and they affect our country.

President Bush also declared: "Remarkable treatments exist…Yet many people -- too many people -- remain untreated. Some end up addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some end up on the streets, homeless. Others end up in our jails, our prisons, our juvenile detention facilities. Our country must make a commitment: Americans with mental illness deserve our understanding, and they deserve excellent care…Political leaders, health care professionals, and all Americans must understand and send this message: mental disability is not a scandal-- it is an illness. And like physical illness, it is treatable, especially when the treatment comes early."

Unfortunately, the Subcommittee seems not to have heard the President’s message nor to have reviewed well--documented reports that show the tragic consequences of the nation’s failure to identify and treat children with mental illnesses. Suicide remains the 3rdleading cause of death for our nation’s 10-24 year old children and young adults and research identified in the U.S. Surgeon General’s report shows that up to 90% of those young people have a diagnosable mental illness.

If the Subcomittee wishes to protect children – it should focus on the unmet needs of children with mental illnesses and their families and the real crisis that currently exists in this country. Congress should heed the call of the U.S. Surgeon General to address the need for the early identification of mental illnesses in children and intervention with appropriate treatment. Partnerships should be fostered at the federal, state and local levels between the education system and other child serving agencies and families to ensure intervention and treatment for early onset mental illnesses.

The Subcommittee should reject legislation that would restrict school professionals from communicating with families about legitimate mental health concerns and recognize that lack of communication inevitably hurts children and families. The importance of open communication between school professionals and families about the health and well-being of children, and if necessary, the freedom to recommend comprehensive medical evaluation cannot be overstated.

Heed also the recommendation of the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health appointed by President Bush. The mental health service system must consider new ways to deliver care to children "in a place long overlooked, our Nation’s schools." [Interim Report of the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, November 2002]. Legislation like H.R. 1170 – now part of the House bill to reauthorize IDEA (H.R. 1350) -- undermine that tenet.

Decisions about appropriate medication for a child with a mental illness rests exclusively with parents and medical professionals—where partnership also is required. Medication is not the only option for families and should be considered in conjunction with a range of treatment options. NAMI hears from thousands of families across the country about their inability to get treatment and services for their child with a mental illness. That is the real crisis. NAMI asks that the Subcommittee support President Bush, the Surgeon General, and millions of American families in addressing this very real concern instead.