AUSTRALIAN toddlers will be screened for mental illness under a new, federal government funded program that some critics fear may medicalise normal childhood behaviour.
THE Healthy Kids Check - starting on July 1 - will be predominantly conducted by GPs, who will refer children with troubling behaviour to psychologists or paediatricians.
The program is expected to identify more than 27,000 children who the government believes will benefit from additional support, but who some doctors say will be wrongly labelled as having a mental illness.
While the aim is to prevent mental illnesses - 50 per cent of which start in childhood - the Australian Medical Association and some mental health experts fear children may be misdiagnosed or given psychiatric drugs unnecessarily.
''We have to be careful we don't medicalise normal behaviour and that's a real caution with children,'' the AMA president, Steve Hambleton, said. ''There are genuine kids who need extra support to help them integrate into normal kindergartens and classrooms and a lot of the funding for that is driven by diagnoses so there's a perverse incentive to diagnose conditions like autism. There are kids who need it but we don't want to make normal kids abnormal.''
Frank Oberklaid, director of the centre for community child health at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital and chair of the expert committee appointed by the Minister for Mental Health, Mark Butler, to develop the check, said their priority was to ''first do no harm''.
''The critics are worried that we're going to slap diagnoses on three-year-olds and treat them with drugs but this is not the point of the exercise,'' Professor Oberklaid said. ''Many parents and preschool teachers face behaviours in children that are challenging and cause stress and distress. We also know that thankfully many of these are transient but we can't predict in a particular child which ones are going to disappear and which ones are going to go on and cause mental health problems. What we're really doing is having a more systematic way of finding out those kids who are causing difficulties and doing something about it.''
"The program is expected to identify more than 27,000 children who the government believes will benefit from additional support, but who some doctors say will be wrongly labelled as having a mental illness"