12/31/2012 01:04 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2013

Do We Really Care About the Mental Health of Our Teens?

Listen, I know that the title of this article is very provocative. I also know that it is a very strange question coming from a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescents. Teenagers walk in and out of my office all week long and yes, it is their caring and devoted parents who bring them to their initial sessions because they want them to feel better, to feel peaceful, to feel joy and to feel anything but emotional pain. On the other hand, it is not until teens demonstrate clear symptoms of depression, anxiety and any of a number of other difficulties that interfere with academic and social functioning that a mental health expert is consulted. That leads me to yet another provocative question: Are we more concerned about our teens' mental health or their academic and social performance -- with an emphasis on performance? This is a question that I'd like all parents of teens to mull over. It is also not an accusation, but we must get to some sort of consensus about the answer.

I have yet another related issue that has been troubling me for years. Here it is in its raw form. We take our kids to their annual physician appointments to make sure that they are growing at the proper rate and that all of their other physical systems are intact. We check to see if they need any sort of tune up, if they need any of their oils changed and if their engines are running well. Sorry to compare your teenagers to cars, but the annual pediatrician or internist visit is generally about the physical and not the mental functioning of the teen -- sort of like how we think about how our cars are running.

I have a novel proposal which I believe is especially important especially in light of the recent tragic school shooting. I propose that all of our kids get an annual mental health assessment starting from the early years to the teen years and then also maybe every year following. Perhaps the stigma associated with mental health assessments would be diminished if mental health assessments were routine. Listen, I know that in the majority of annual physicals teens are not opening up about mental health issues. I've been to conferences about this and I've spoken to hundreds of kids and plenty of physicians. Unless it is a clear mental health problem that manifests itself physically like anorexia nervosa, a tic disorder, failure to thrive or some other physical health issue, it is unlikely to be identified. Even if the issue does manifest itself in a physical or somatic manner, as we like to say in the business, it may still go unnoticed. I say this with all due respect for physicians who generally go into the field with the best of intentions to heal people. I know that they are tight on time, that their training may have taught them to focus on the physical and that patients may not be providing necessary information.

Perhaps these annual mental health assessments that I am proposing need to be done outside of the physician's office and in the office of a mental health professional. We cannot, however, simply rely on the self-report of the child or teen, because self-report is often very inaccurate.

We need to start a movement where annual mental health assessments are required.
I would be more than delighted to be a part of this movement. Why does a mental health issue need to be immobilizing before it is dealt with?