Calling all parents with young
children: Don?t forget to schedule your 5-year-olds for their mandatory mental
health checkups with a therapist or psychiatrist.

This might not be a reality yet,
and if the notion of kids having regularly scheduled appointments to keep tabs
on their mental health is troubling to you, you probably aren?t alone. But if this
proposal sounds like a bad idea and a waste of time, you might want to
reconsider.

The issue of mental health has
come to the fore of the collective American psyche in recent months. Tragic
events at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech University and a
recent report in The New York Times highlighting a drastic increase in suicide
rates for middle-aged men and women have brought the issue into the national
discourse.

But things might not be this way
if clinics and hospitals start screening mental health in young children as
part of an annual or semi-annual checkup. That way, mental health could be
handled more along the lines of eye exams or dentist appointments, with the
idea that mental wellness needs regular care rather than specialized treatment.

Commonly, therapy and psychiatric
care are only available to those who know they need it and actively seek help
themselves. Or, in some cases, a family member or friend intervenes on behalf
of the person in question. Presently, society looks at mental health as
requiring reactive rather than preventive care.

But that still leaves out all those
people who need help for a mental health condition and either deny they have a
problem, refuse to seek help for it or have their condition written off as an
adolescent phase. Two such people were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who were
considered outcasts at Columbine High School in the late 1990s.

Routine, mandatory mental health
care starting at an early age and continuing through adolescence could have
helped people like Mr. Klebold and Mr. Harris. The advantage would be that if
anyone showed any trends of having problems early in life that otherwise would
have remained undetected, that person could be monitored and treated. Perhaps
only three or four mandatory therapy sessions per year for children and
adolescents could drastically reduce suicide rates or untreated problems with
depression for people of all ages.

Since BadgerCare Plus was passed ?
legislation that ensures affordable health care to virtually all Wisconsin
children and their families ? the issue is even more relevant in the Badger
State. Like most other health insurance plans, BadgerCare Plus provides mental
health screening and a certain number of counseling sessions every year at the
patient?s request. Most people agree this program is a giant leap for health
insurance in Wisconsin, but it doesn?t go far enough.

Similarly, health care is a huge
issue in the race for the White House, but the central talking points are too
focused on how we can achieve universal health care rather than the type of
care that is necessary.

We all seem to be obsessed with
providing everyone everywhere in this country with health care, an idea that
seems next to impossible to achieve because of the way huge insurance companies
relentlessly throw their weight around. Yet issues we could easily improve
upon, like that of mandatory mental health care, slip right under our noses.
Maybe that?s because it is much easier for politicians to give poor, young
mothers the promise of better health care coverage at a lower cost than to
stress the importance of taking their kindergartners in for a visit with a
psychiatrist.

These issues are both important,
but they are not mutually exclusive. State lawmakers should pair their promise
of extending health care to virtually all minors (i.e., BadgerCare Plus) with
the promise of accompanying mental health coverage.

This is not a call for all
preschool-aged kids who might have eaten the sand in the sandbox one too many
times to be admitted to the psych ward. It is a precautionary measure to make
sure children and adolescents with real psychological problems get the help
they need.

Hopefully before another high
school or college student opens fire in a classroom, lawmakers will address not
only the universality of health coverage, but also the scope of its provisions.

Ruth Windberg
(windberg@wisc.edu) is a junior majoring in history and economics.