Task Force Recommends Screening Children Aged Eight and Above For Anxiety Disorders

Task Force Recommends Screening Children Aged Eight and Above For Anxiety Disorders
Most people suffer adversity in childhood that undermines their ability to maintain healthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Children faced extra mental pressure during the pandemic lockdowns including suffering from anxiety and depression. (Joaquin Corbalan P/Shutterstock)
Naveen Athrappully

Children as young as 8 years old should be screened for anxiety according to a leading panel on preventive health, amidst rising cases of mental disorders including depression, among kids and teens, particularly noted during the pandemic.

The “B Grade” draft guidance from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for major depressive disorder (MDD) in adolescents aged 12 to 18 years. It also recommends, for the first time, screening children aged 8 and older for anxiety.

There isn’t enough evidence to recommend for or against screening for similar disorders in younger children. Hence, these come under “I Grade,” when the balance of benefits and harms cannot be determined. Screening for suicide risk in all youth also comes under this grade.

“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,” Task Force member Martha Kubik said in an April 12 press release (pdf).

“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.”

Many children across the United States are suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety, and the screenings combined with follow-up care can reduce symptoms, help in making improvements, and even potentially resolve issues, based on findings of the task force, which added that the wide availability of screening tools at present helps in the process.

Around 7.1 percent of children between the ages 3 and 17, approximately 4.4 million, suffer from anxiety; and 3.2 percent, approximately 1.9 million, have been diagnosed with depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Authors of the latest research by USPSTF reviewed 78 studies to examine the evidence on screening among children and teens for anxiety, suicide risk, and depression, with benefits seen through using pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.

Untreated anxiety could lead to headaches, stomachaches, and other physical issues in the short term. If left untreated, it could lead to trauma, poor academic performance, and developmental delays, said the task force.

Experts have repeatedly pointed to the ill effects of the restrictions brought about by the pandemic that have had a detrimental effect on children, including social distancing, mask mandates, and lockdowns. Meaningful social interactions with friends and the wider society are critical during developmental years.

There were 14 percent more mental health emergency visits for kids aged 3 to 18 from January to September 2021 when compared to the same period in 2019. The first three quarters of 2021 registered 42 percent more visits to the emergency room from children between 5 and 18 for self-injury and suicide compared to 2019, according to data from the Children’s Hospital Association (pdf).

The report also mentioned that 53 percent of adults with children in their households reported they were concerned about the mental state of their children.

USPSTF drafts are available for public comment until May 9.