Screening Australian preschoolers for early signs of mental illness has come under renewed attack by prominent psychiatrists who say it will cause some children to be labelled like "naughty puppies" and stress their parents unnecessarily.
Several Australian and international experts have criticised the Federal Government-funded Healthy Kids Check in the latest Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
The voluntary checks, which will cost $11 million over five years, will mostly be carried out by GPs who will look for possible signs of psychological problems including sleeping with the light on, temper tantrums or extreme shyness.
Mental Health Minister Mark Butler has already had to defend the program, arguing it gave parents a chance to take their children to their GP to check their physical and emotional development.
But Margot Prior, from the University of Melbourne's school of psychological sciences, said the Government was embarking on a screening campaign with questionable benefits.
"Children at this stage of development can be happy one minute, hour, day or week and miserable the next," Professor Prior wrote in the journal.
"Development changes are normal, and labelling at this stage is highly problematic. Who wants to give a dog (puppy) a bad name?"
Professor Prior said the checks would load up doctors with another condition for which they had to screen children when most were not adequately trained.
Allen Frances, from Duke University in the US, said Australia was "flying blind" with an untested program that was viewed overseas with "wonder and alarm".
"Prematurely bringing down the target age for prevention to include three-year-olds simply doesn't pass the laugh test," Professor Frances wrote.
"My guess is that testing will cause considerable and unnecessary worry for parents, will distort child-rearing, cause stigma, reduce expectations and result in inappropriate use of medication."
Monash University psychiatrist Louise Newman said there had been little consultation with child psychiatrists about the screening.WA MP Martin Whitely said it was a waste of resources. Screening typically involved behavioural check lists that were as scientific as a magazine personality quiz.
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