07/30/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

Should Educational Institutions Screen for Mental Illness?

During orientation at my alma mater many years ago, I was horrified to learn about the mandatory swim test. I wasn't afraid of the water. I was afraid of wearing a bathing suit in front of my new classmates. I knew relations between the sexes moved quickly in college, but flashing this much skin before exchanging names struck me as a bit extreme.

As I walked to the pool, a towel wrapped tightly around me, I just couldn't figure out the connection between swimming and a college education. Would my professors or future employers care about my ability to reach the other end of the pool without passing out from exhaustion, or in my case, humiliation? Had I missed the question about swimming proficiency on my application?

I raise this anecdote to refute those who argue that screening for mental illness is too heavy a burden to place on educational institutions. If my college could coordinate getting every freshman into the pool during orientation week, and then enrolling all of the flunkies into a swim class first semester, they can find a way to identify students suffering from mental illness.

The fact is that schools can, and do, screen for whatever they want. Just attend a local kindergarten screening and you'll see what I mean. Heck, my son pulled pony tails in daycare and they wanted him evaluated by an occupational therapist. He was almost 2-years-old. I declined their offer. The hair pulling stopped by the time he was two and a half.

Sadly, it seems like the older kids get, the less we monitor them for red flags that could be cries for help. We hover over them in the early years, but as they mature, our concerns turn to sexual activity, drug use and then the college admissions process. Mental illness is ignored, just as kids reach an age when they can inflict the most harm on themselves and others. How have we gotten to a point where hair pulling is a cause for alarm, but anti-social behavior in high school is shrugged off?

True, there is no easy test for mental illness, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Autism is perplexing, but we have made impressive progress in diagnosing and treating this condition. Special education professionals have played a critical role in addressing the needs of autistic students, and we should use school psychologists in the same way.

Here are a few suggestions: Yearly psychological evaluations from middle school through high school. Better mental illness training for school officials. Make sure kids get the help they need. College questionnaires for school counselors included as part of the application process. Mandatory sessions with college psychologists during orientation, just like students meet with academic and financial aid advisors.

And we have to keep our eyes open. Just like the NYC subway system asks of us, "If you see something, say something." Big Brother in our schools? Perhaps, but the talk we hear after every shooting tragedy is no less severe. Instead of fewer people carrying weapons we see a spike in gun sales. More schools install metal detectors. What we forget is that keeping our eyes open for suspicious behavior is our only protection against those too clever and psychopathic to be stopped by conventional measures.

Parents and privacy advocates might object to flagging students being treated for mental illness. Yet, we have no problem flagging students for other reasons -- gifted, delayed, diabetic, asthma, peanut allergy, etc. We flag because we care, because we want these students to get the services they need. The real problem with flagging for mental illness stems from the societal stigma that persists for these conditions. However, the only way to erase this stigma is to bring mental illness out into the open, just as we have for learning disabilities and sexual orientation. The success stories of students who are being treated successfully, and that is the goal, could encourage others to seek treatment.

As the nation grapples with the tragedy in Colorado, let's not forget that the alleged shooter was a PhD candidate, which means he spent most of his life in school. He might convince a jury he was insane. We should ask why his various educational institutions couldn't figure that out before it was too late.