All children as young as 8 years old should be screened for anxiety, a government panel has recommended, saying that early screening is critical for connecting them to the resources that could help them.
The announcement marks the first time that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has issued a recommendation on screening children that young for anxiety disorders, the agency said in a news release on April 12.
While the guidance, which is still being drafted and is open for public comment, focuses on the initial screening, more work would be needed to get kids the mental health help they need. Children who show signs of anxiety and depression after a screening would be advised to have further evaluations, and then experts say they should decide a strategy with their family and health care providers on how to best treat any potential diagnosis.
In the same announcement, the agency also echoed its 2016 recommendation, which said children 12 and older should be screened for depression. Depression and anxiety are often seen together – around 60% of people with anxiety will also experience symptoms of depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“To address the critical need for supporting the mental health of children and adolescents in primary care, the Task Force looked at the evidence on screening for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk,” Martha Kubik, a member of the task force and a professor in the school of nursing at George Mason University, said in the panel’s news release. “Fortunately, we found that screening older children for anxiety and depression is effective in identifying these conditions so children and teens can be connected to the support they need.”
The panel of experts emphasized that the new screening would apply to children and teenagers who haven’t shown outward signs or symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental conditions, the task force said. Any child who does show signs of such conditions or who expresses concern about them should be connected to care resources already, regardless of these new recommendations, the agency said.
More resources needed as pandemic creates challenges
The recommendations come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in many cases worsened mental health challenges among children and teenagers.
In January, the American Psychological Association said that children are facing a mental health crisis, influenced by factors like remote learning, the loss of a family member, and the unpredictability of the pandemic.
The organization also noted that the pandemic made existing disparities in children’s access to mental health resources even more severe. A 2020 report by the University of Massachusetts Boston and University of Massachusetts Amherst found that students who needed access to school-based services the most had fewer counselors and school psychologists in their school district, the APA said.
The task force acknowledged limitations in its recommendations, saying that screening is “only the first step in helping children and teens with depression and anxiety.”
“What the pandemic has done is, it exacerbated a pre-existing issue,” Nasuh Malas, director of pediatric consultation and liaison psychiatry services at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, told the Wall Street Journal. “These guidelines are a preliminary step to many, many steps that we need to take nationally as a community of people who are concerned about our youth.”
The agency also said that more research needs to be done to determine if even younger children should also be screened for depression, anxiety and suicide risk.
“More research on these important conditions is critical,” Lori Pbert, a task force member and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said in the announcement. “In the meantime, healthcare professionals should use their clinical judgment based on individual patient circumstances when deciding whether or not to screen.”
The U.S. Preventive Task Force is made up of 16 volunteers “who are nationally recognized experts in prevention, evidence-based medicine, and primary care,” according to the agency’s website.
Anyone who would like to submit a public comment on the agency’s guidelines can do so on their website until May 9.