The recent recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) that children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 years be screened for anxiety is likely to trigger family conversations about the topic and in turn, spur long-overdue treatment.
Many pediatric and family practices already screened for anxiety and other mental health problems even before COVID-19 came along in early 2020, says Austin psychiatrist Thomas Kim, MD. Then the pandemic caused such widespread behavioral health fallout that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups declared a national emergency in children’s mental health in 2021.
“My guess is that there isn’t going to be a whole lot of operational change for most practices,” as a result of the USPSTF recommendation he said. “But it’s hopefully sparking a conversation that [allows] parents – who may be noting a change in their child’s demeanor or disposition in some way – to feel comfortable reaching out to a doctor.”
Such screening is vital to identify behavioral health problems in the early stages, he adds.
“Once the question is asked [about the child’s mental well-being], we have a chance of addressing these things before they become more grave and more expensive for all of us,” Dr. Kim said.
The USPSTF’s new recommendation will help young people struggling with anxiety, but it only addresses part of the crisis in child mental health, he cautions. One of the most important problems is lack of access to mental health care services.
Texas currently ranks 51 among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America.
However, recent steps have improved mental health care access in Texas, especially for children. For instance, Texas’ creation of the Child Psychiatry Access Network (CPAN) gives pediatricians and family physicians across the state free telemedicine-based consultation and training on community psychiatry. A pediatrician or family physician caring for a patient with psychiatric needs can call CPAN and typically get professional advice in minutes.
The USPSTF recommendation comes on the heels of an identical recommendation in September for adults 65 and younger, including women who are pregnant and or have recently had a child.
The newest recommendation does not include children under the age of 8 because scientific research is more difficult to conduct regarding such young children, Dr. Kim says.
He is, however, “optimistic that reframing anxiety and depression among children and adults in this way will lead to better outcomes.”