How Screenings Help Identify and Address Pediatric Mental Health Challenges

It’s no surprise that pediatric mental health issues have skyrocketed to unrivaled levels as children have been forced to navigate the challenges that have come with the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Desperate for ways to address this growing concern, healthcare professionals across the United States are coming together to share ideas about programs, policies, and best practices that will positively impact the mental health of youth and adolescents in the US.

These efforts come at a critical time, just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a new survey illustrating the toll the pandemic has taken on high-school-aged children. In this survey, the CDC found that:

  • 29% of respondents had a parent in their home lose a job
  • 47% said they felt unconnected from friends and peers in 2021
  • 12% of students who said they felt unconnected during the pandemic attempted suicide

Additionally, survey data from the Spring of 2020 found that one-third of students were more unhappy and depressed than usual, with subsequent mental health visits to the emergency room rising by 24% for children aged 5-11, and 31% for children aged 12-17.

These figures come as no surprise, but they should serve as a wake-up call. In response, organizations like the US Preventative Service Task Force have come up with new and innovative ideas for ways to make a difference. They recently recommended that all children ages eight and older be screened for anxiety as a way to encourage earlier identification, intervention, and support. 

What is the US Preventative Service Task Force?

The US Preventative Service Task Force (USPSTF) is a volunteer organization spearheaded by 16 different medical experts with experience in preventative care, evidence-based medicine, behavioral health, and primary care. All members are appointed by the Director of AHRQ, and serve a four-year term. While the USPSTF is not a regulating or governing body, the length and breadth of their collective experience carries weight with many clinicians and pediatricians around the United States. A comprehensive list of their recommendations specific to mental health and substance use screenings, counseling, and preventive medicine can be found here.

Pediatric Screenings Recommended by the USPSTF

In response to growing concerns about pediatric mental health during the pandemic, the USPSTF recently put out a draft recommendation — the first stage in what will likely become an official recommendation which suggested that children between the ages of 8-18 be screened for anxiety. This is in addition to a separate draft recommendation which suggests that children ages 12 and older be screened for depression.   

Ideally, this screening would happen during the child or teen’s annual well visit and would be conducted by their primary care physician.

Some of the suggested screenings include the General Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7), which is popular with many primary care physicians, as well as the more in-depth Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED), which is used separately for both parents and children.

How Screenings Can Help Address Common Pediatric Mental Health Concerns

There are many ways that implementing these regular screenings could help benefit children’s mental health. “We know that one of the first mental health challenges children face is anxiety,” said Jonathan Goldfinger, CEO of L.A.-based Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services.

Identifying anxiety early and putting the child on a path towards evidence-based care can help ensure they get the help they need before the situation worsens. When a child is having symptoms of depression or anxiety and is not screened, it can lead to more serious mental health concerns, such as substance use disorder or suicidality.

 In addition to ensuring anxiety or depression is caught before it can worsen or contribute to other mental health concerns, there are several different ways that these screenings could help address common pediatric mental health concerns.

  • By starting screenings earlier in childhood, it helps remove stigma around the discussion of mental health. By normalizing these conversations as part of the regular well visit, primary care physicians can help introduce the subject of mental health to their young patients and encourage them to see it as just another part of a healthy lifestyle.
  • According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, conducting screenings earlier in a child’s life has been proven to lead to better outcomes for any necessary treatment. Not only does this make life better for children, but it can also lessen the burden on their parents, families, educators, and the entire public health system.
  • Conducting youth screenings and identifying symptoms of anxiety and depression can lead to more support for children, not only from their physicians, but from their parents and caregivers as well. During a regular well-visit, parents can be updated on the results of their child’s screenings and given appropriate educational resources. If needed, a referral to a behavioral health specialist can be identified during these visits as well.
  • If these universal screenings were to be implemented, they would give healthcare professionals access to unprecedented levels of data on the mental health needs of the youth in their care. When collated, this data can help provide information on where resources are needed most, allowing governments and health regulatory bodies to disburse available assets accordingly.  

While this recommendation on increasing mental health screenings for younger children is still in the early stages, it represents a popular view held by many pediatricians and primary care physicians across the country. 

If you’d like to learn more about the next stage of this recommendation by the US Preventative Service Task Force, you can read the complete recommendation statement, follow updates, and leave a public comment here.

If you, your child, or another loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or other thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can reach the Crisis Text Line immediately by texting “START” to 741-741. For any urgent safety concerns, call 911 or go directly to the emergency room.

As awareness builds and demand for mental and behavioral health services grow, agencies need new tools to support operational and financial functions. EHRs are key to generating efficiencies that free up administrative time so you can focus on supporting your clients. Our solution offers features designed to help keep your organization’s financial and clinical operations running smoothly, so you can focus on what you do best – taking care of others. To learn more about how NextStep Solutions is purpose-built to help behavioral health practices operate at their best, contact us today.

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