Weigel: Health screenings can help students

A committee under the jurisdiction of Gov. Reynolds has recommended health screenings for Iowa students to address the mental health epidemic.


Zach Weigel, Opinion Columnist

Last week, I wrote about how the Second Amendment — the right to bear (fire)arms — has largely remained intact while other freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom to assemble, have been significantly curtailed by court rulings. Don’t get me wrong — gun rights have certainly been chipped away at. My point is that gun rights haven’t been chipped away in a “common sense” fashion in the same manner as the freedoms of speech or to assemble.

It makes sense that you should not be allowed to purposefully defame someone or hurl racial epithets. It also makes sense that you should have to get a permit to hold a parade on public property. What doesn’t make sense is that it’s still incredibly easy to legally purchase a firearm. It seems common sense to have stricter laws preventing people from purchasing firearms when they have mental-health issues — for their own safety and the safety of others.

Therefore, I believe we should all be encouraged by a new proposal floating around the Iowa Legislature. You see, a couple of weeks ago, a committee — under the auspices of Gov. Kim Reynolds — recommended that 1) all Iowa children should be screened for mental-health issues, and 2) that services helping those children with mental-health issues should be expanded.

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Now, this proposal is by no means an actual policy yet; however, state legislators and the committee members sound quite optimistic that a version of the recommendations will become law once the Legislature convenes in January. It should be noted that similar committees have proposed recommendations three times in the previous seven years only to see no improvements actually made. To boot, the committee’s recommendations do not specify how the plan would be funded or specifics on how and when the screenings would be administered.

Still, you may ask: Why is this policy proposal important? To that query, I contend that research on mental health and suicide justify the proposal. Without even thinking, I’m willing to bet that nearly every person in the U.S. has heard that mental health and suicide are problems that need to be addressed.

Statistics bear out the problem, too. According to the New York Times, life expectancy has dropped — yes dropped, not increased — for the third consecutive year. Why? To no surprise, researchers speculate that the chief causes for the decreasing life expectancy are an increase in suicide and an increase in opioid and prescription-drug overdoses. And here’s the kicker: opioid and prescription drug use are frequently used to treat mental-health issues while suicidal thoughts and actions are often motivated by mental-health issues.

What’s more, studies also show that suicide rates among adolescents — particularly among teenage girls and minorities — are increasing, too. In fact, despite what news coverage may lead you to believe, a Washington Post analysis reveals that suicide is a far greater problem among school-age kids than school shootings.

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Since Columbine in 1999 — the first large-scale school shooting in the U.S. — the Washington Post has found that 130 students and staff have been killed by school shooters and 254 have been injured. In comparison, data suggest that over a similar time period (1991-2013), roughly 2 percent of students grades 9-12 (300,000 students) have needed medical attention due to a suicide attempt. Thus, the statistics certainly evince that suicide is a much bigger threat to students than a school shooter.

So, bringing this all together, should the state Legislature 1) implement a policy to screen school children for mental health and 2) increase support services for students that have mental-health issues? Finding funding and nailing down the specifics of the policy will be tricky, but it certainly seems that the policy would be worthwhile.

Suicide — and school shootings — are frequently connected to mental-health issues. Therefore, I think we should applaud Reynolds’ committee for putting together a plan to potentially shore up some deficiencies in the well-being and safety of our state’s students. Now, it’s up to you to enact the recommendations, Iowa legislators.