Inside TeenScreen

In October, 2004, after taking TeenScreen, a 10-minute computer test developed in the psychiatric department of Columbia University, 16-year-old Chelsea Rhoades of Indiana was told she had two mental health problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety disorder. The diagnoses were based upon Chelsea’s responses that she liked to help clean the house and didn’t “party” much.

Chelsea is one of countless children who get labeled with fraudulent diagnoses every day. The difference in her case is that her parents, who were unaware that TeenScreen had infiltrated their daughter’s school and had not given permission for the screening, reacted quickly. They filed a lawsuit against the officials of the high school who allowed the test to be administered and the TeenScreen program. In doing so, the Rhoades took a stand for all parents across the nation.

The unscientific nature of psychiatric labeling was admitted to by the American Psychiatric Association’s own president, Steven Sharfstein, when he stated on June 27, 2005, during an interview on the Today Show, “We do not have a clean cut lab test [for diagnosing mental illness or chemical imbalance of the brain.]”

His admission was quickly followed by another similar statement from psychiatrist Mark Graff, Chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Committee of Public Affairs, “Chemical imbalance: it’s a shorthand term really, it’s probably drug industry derived. We don’t have tests because to do it, you’d probably have to take a chunk of brain out of someone – not a good idea.” Graff did more than admit to there being no science behind the chemical imbalance theory. He also pointed out the incestuous relationship between the drug industries and psychiatry.

TeenScreen is definitely a child born of that union, nothing more than an unscientific written mental health survey which professes to discover “mental illnesses”, but in fact trolls for lifelong psychiatric patients in our schools.

TeenScreen has been cleverly sold to numerous schools across the country as a suicide prevention program with no scientific evidence backing up the claim. The 1996 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found no evidence that screening for suicide risk reduces suicide attempts or mortality.

The individuals pushing TeenScreen make every effort to hide evidence that mental health screening is of no use in combating teen suicide. In order to gain wide acceptance in our nation’s schools they paint youth suicide as an epidemic and their program as the cure-all.

According to the latest Census Bureau information, gathered in 2000, the U.S. population of 14-19 year olds was around 19,800,000 and suicide for that year accounted for 0.0008% of the total teen population. Each teen suicide is an unfathomable tragedy, yet the actual numbers prove that suicide is not an epidemic. In fact, suicide among American youth fell 25 percent in the last decade.

TeenScreen’s executives are well aware of the actual situation. Rob Caruano, former TeenScreen director, was quoted in the South Bend Tribune on December 22, 2004, “Teen Suicides, while tragic, are so rare that [any] study would have to be impossibly huge to show a meaningful difference in mortality between screened and unscreened students. You’d have to be screening almost the whole country to reach statistical significance.”

TeenScreen is far from being the solution. In fact, some experts agree that widespread screening will increase the number of teen suicides. Jane Pearson, PhD. who chairs the National Institute of Mental Health Suicide Research Consortium said, ” … a prevention program designed for high-school aged youth found that participants were more likely to consider suicide a solution to a problem after the program than prior to the program…” She also stated, ” … suicide is a very rare occurrence compared to other causes of deaths. … when researchers have tried to predict suicide using as many known risk factors as possible, they are still unable to predict who will and who will not commit this act.”

The TeenScreen test is a 14-item, self-completion questionnaire. It usually takes 10 minutes to complete and is used to screen youths from ages 11 to 18 who read at a 6th grade level. It asks questions such as “have you often felt very nervous when you’ve had to do things in front of people?”, or, “Are you the kind of person who is often very tense, and finds it very hard to relax?”, or, “Has there been a time when nothing was fun for you and you just weren’t interested in anything?”

One would be hard pressed to find a teenager who wouldn’t at one time or another answer yes to those sorts of questions. TeenScreen refuses to release copies of the questionnaire, even to parents and elected officials who have requested to see the test.

TeenScreen, in an effort to make the program appear innocuous, claims that it does not recommend or endorse any particular kind of treatment for the youth who are identified by the screening. But, in one of many conflicting statements Laurie Flynn, TeenScreen’s director, reveals that the long-term goal of TeenScreen is not just identification, but treatment for those in need, and that parents of youths found to be at possible risk a re notified and helped in identifying and connecting to local mental health services.

Particularly distressing is the data released by a recent survey, printed in JAM Academy Adolescent Psychiatry 2002, showing that nine out of ten children who see a psychiatrist are given psychiatric drugs.

A recent survey showed that between 1995 and 1999, the use of antidepressants increased 151% for 7 to 12 year olds and 580% for children under six. Between 1998 and 2003, there was another 49% increase in children taking antidepressants. Sales of the drugs have now reached more than $13 billion a year.

To make matters worse, on September 15, 2004, the FDA stated that a causal role for antidepressants in inducing suicidality had been established in pediatric patients, and that children given psychiatric dru gs were twice as likely to commit suicide as those given a placebo. As a result of this finding, the FDA ordered drug manufacturers to place a Black-Box warning on all antidepressant labels. The Black-Box warning is the most serious measure that the FDA can take regarding a prescription medication, short of an outright ban. That initial Black-Box warning label requirement has since been followed by 15 more official warnings on psychiatric drugs.

Eileen Dannemann of the National Coalition of Organized Women describes the TeenScreen approach as a telling omission. “We’ve got eight million American kids on psychiatric drugs,” she said. “While TeenScreen asks the kids if they are usin g street drugs, they omit to find out about the use of psych drugs. Antidepressants play a major role in youth suicide. If [TeenScreen] really wanted to help they would worry about that. The fact that they don’t shows their real intention.”

It becomes obvious that teens will not benefit from TeenScreen. The question that begs to be asked is “Who will benefit?”

Psychologist, author and director of Texans for Safe Education, John Breeding, doesn’t mince words, “TeenScreen is nothing more than a government sponsored marketing tool created to serve the interests of the corporate pharmaceutical industry and psychiatrists. It is a shame and a disgrace that the United States is putting millions of children on psychiatric drugs today. This is obviously not enough to satisfy the insatiable greed of big pharma. We must stop TeenScreen and protect our children from more deadly poisoning.”

TeenScreen is the brainchild of psychiatrist David Shaffer of Columbia University. Shaffer is a paid consultant for pharmaceutical companies Hoffman la Roche, Wyeth, and GlaxoSmithKline. Shaffer is also the director of the Division of Child Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. A New York Post article dated January 31, 1999, State Testing Prozac on 6-Year olds; Parents Not Told About Risks Including Suicide and Mania, read, “The New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan is performing little-known but extensive Prozac experimentation on troubled kids as young as 6 years old, according to internal records. While the potentially deadly danger was cited in the researchers’ documents, it was not included in the consent forms given to children and their parents to read and sign.”

Laurie Flynn, the current director of TeenScreen is also the former director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). While Flynn was the director of NAMI, a group that bills itself as “a grassroots organization of individuals with brain disorders and their family members”, NAMI received $11.72 million from various drug companies between 1996 and mid-1999. One drug company went as far as “loaning” one of its executives to NAMI, still paying for his salary while he worked at NAMI’s headquarters.

In view of Flynn’s cozy relationships with drug companies, officials of the program are working hard at minimizing any link to the drug companies by saying that they are not funded by drug money. Yet, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities newsletter, Update – May/June 2002, revealed that a recent local TeenScreen survey was partly funded by pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly.

The goal of TeenScreen is one item they are not afraid to reveal: to provide mental health screening for every single American teen. If TeenScreen’ s goal is achieved, all 19,800,000 youths will receive a “mental health checkup”. Considering that 71% of teens who were screened in Colorado were labeled with a mental disorder, should TeenScreen succeed in its goal, it is possible that 71% of our teens would end up being labeled. This means that no less than 14,058,000 American youth would end up labeled mentally ill. Since nine out of ten children who receive “treatment” are given mind-altering psychiatric drugs, the inevitable conclusion is that 12,652,200 would be drugged.

The average price of a prescription for psychiatric drugs is $102 per month. TeenScreen’s endeavors would increase the pharmaceutical companies’ monthly revenues by $1,290,524,400.

To ensure success, TeenScreen officials prefer the Passive Consent form which requires parents to return a form to the school only if they do not want their child to participate in the screening. Flynn is quick to deny promoting the use of Passive Consent to schools. However, Flynn’s statement, like many others, is far removed from the truth. Numerous high schools only use Passive Consent forms and, as in the case of Flager Palm Coast High School in Florida, the passive acceptance style was discussed by school officials to increase the numbers of participants from 50% for Active Consent to near 95% for Passive.

Incentives such as pizza or movie coupons are distributed to the kids because, as TeenScreen co-director, Leslie McGuire, said during a national conference, “Getting the kids to buy-in is such an essential thing because for the most part, you’re distributing the consent forms to the kids to bring home to their parents and bring them back. So you have to get their buy-in, you have to get them interested.”

TeenScreen goes as far as to advise local schools on how to circumvent federal law. The Protection of Pupil Rights Act (PPRA) protects the rights of parents by making instructional materials available for their inspection if the materials are to be used in connection with a survey, analysis, or evaluation in which their child is participating. It also requires written parental consent before minors are required to take part in such a survey, analysis, or evaluation.

The TeenScreen News (Fall 2003, Vol. 2, Issue 2) instructs schools that making the TeenScreen survey a part of the curriculum will help them get around the PPRA, ” … if the screening will be given to all students, as opposed to some, it becomes part of the curriculum and no longer requires active parental consent.”

But even if active consent forms were used for all children being tested by TeenScreen, it still would provide no protection for unsuspecting parents. Before parents can make a truly educated decision they must be told all the facts. Then, and only then, can they provide informed consent.

A true informed consent form would tell parents the following:

* Chemical imbalance of the brain is only a theory with no science of proof to back it up

* While screening is not a scientific and medical test it might still result in the child being labeled depressed or mentally ill

* Should the child be labeled, the likely recommended course of treatment will be psychiatric drugs

* Psychiatric drugs are known to cause children to commit sui cide

* Should parents refuse the recommended course of treatment, a referral to the local child welfare agency might be made, which could result in the child being taken away from home and forcibly drugged

Flynn has made it clear that she will go to any length in getting acceptance for TeenScreen. While testifying in front of a Senate Committee in Washington, she claimed to be in partnership with the University of South Florida in piloting district wide mental Health screenings of 9th graders in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Florida.

Wilcox Clayton, Pinellas County School Board Superintendent, was quick to set the record straight. He emphatically stated that no such screening was taking place and added, “If this person [Laurie Flynn] said what they allegedly said, I would have serious reservations about partnering with such an organization.”

TeenScreen is designed only to increase psychiatric and drug company revenues by turning normal ch ildren into lifelong mental patients. Now is the time for anyone who cares about children and the future to step up and demand that mental health screening not be allowed in any schools at any time.

SANDRA LUCAS is the Executive Director of the Utah Chapter of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a mental health watchdog group. She was born in Sydney, Australia, raised on the French South Pacific island of New Caledonia. She moved to the United States at the age of 15 and has lived in Salt Lake City with her family since 1992. She can be reached at