All school children in Britain should be tested for mental health illnesses, say experts
Screening all 11-year-olds could reveal those at greater risk of conditions such as depression, claim researchersThis could help health authorities treat youngsters early and stop them descending into more hard to treat conditions
However, other experts warn that labeling people as 'vulnerable' at such a young age could do more harm than good
11:08 GMT, 29 November 2012
All school children should be screened for risk of mental illnesses such as depression, say leading mental health experts.
Scientists at Cambridge University said they had devised a computer test that could reliably identify those at high risk as early as 11-years-old.
A study led by Professor Barbara Sahakian suggested the test could be used to alert doctors and psychologists to intervene early.
At risk Scientists claim finding those at risk from mental illness could stop them from developing harder to treat conditions
Ian Goodyer, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who worked with Prof Sahakian on the study, said screening 11 to 12-year-old children could reveal those who have 'low resilience' – putting them at higher risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression.
However, other experts have warned that labeling someone as 'high risk' at such a young age could itself have negative consequences.
Mental health problems are common in young people. Some 10 per cent of children aged between five and 16 in Britain are assessed as having a mental disorder of some kind.
Adolescence is also a critical period for the development of major depression – an illness that exacts a heavy toll on people and economies worldwide with patients unable to hold down jobs or needing repeated long stretches of time off work.
The World Health Organization says more than 350 million people worldwide have depression and predicts that by 2020, the disorder will rival heart disease as the illness with the highest global disease burden.
Prof Sahakian said testing children at school age could help health authorities get in early and offer therapy to prevent people descending into more serious, hard to treat conditions.
'When you think that the burden of mental illness is more than cancer, more than heart disease – so why on earth don't we try to do something more proactive,' she said, after presenting her results at a briefing in London.
'Why are we not doing anything to pick it up early To me it's a no-brainer.'
A no-brainer: Professor Barbara Sahakian says she can't understand why school children aren't screened for mental health illnesses
Goodyer's and Sahakian's test involves a computer assessment designed to gauge how teenagers process emotional information. It includes asking whether certain words, such as 'joyful', 'failure' or “range”, are positive, negative or neutral.
For their initial study, 15- to 18-year-olds also underwent genetic testing – an exercise that would be too expensive for routine use but which validated a connection between genes and upbringing in determining mental health risks.
The researchers found that adolescents who had a variation of a certain gene linked to the brain chemical serotonin and who had also experienced regular family arguments and parental rows for longer than six months before the age of six, had significant difficulty evaluating the emotion in the words.
This, said Goodyer, suggested those children suffered from an inability to process emotional information – a factor which previous studies have established is linked to a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety.
'The evidence is that both our genes and our early childhood experiences contribute,' said Goodyer.
'Before there are any clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety, this test reveals a deficient ability to… perceive emotion processes… which may lead to mental illnesses.'
Experts are concerned about the early onset of mental disorders – a factor they say many policy makers and members of the public have not yet grasped.
Hans Ulrich Wittchen, a psychologist at Germany's University of Dresden, said in a major European study of mental illness last year that he too thought governments should consider screening adolescents to try to reduce the number who go on to suffer major and recurring bouts of depression.
But other mental health experts advised caution.
'Early screening in the service of early intervention to try to prevent later mental health problems undoubtedly has allure,' said Felicity Callard of London's Institute of Psychiatry.
'But to grow up with the knowledge that you are 'at high risk' of future mental health problems can affect the very way in which you grow up – and thereby… embed a sense that you are mentally vulnerable, with potentially untoward consequences.'