GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the first time, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends that all children between 8 and 18 years old should be screened annually for anxiety disorders.
Dr. Lisa Vroman Stokes, who manages Pine Rest’s Forest Hills Clinic and coordinates outpatient specialty services for children and teenagers, says the decision is a long time coming.
“I think that has been neglected,” Vroman Stokes told News 8. “I think mental health needs have been long overdue in our country. And that’s certainly true for our youth. I think we have been woefully ignoring how our children are doing. … We have significant reason to suspect that many of our youth are struggling with anxiety now. Unfortunately, only about 20% of children who do struggle with a mental health concern actually receive specialized mental health treatment.”
In its report, the USPSTF said it believes anxiety screenings would be a “moderate net benefit” for kids 8 to 18 years old. However, there is not enough data available to determine whether children 7 or younger would benefit from screenings.
A study conducted across 2018 and 2019 found 7.8% of children and teens met criteria for an anxiety disorder. Those numbers grew drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve seen quite a surge in increased mental health needs among our youth over the course of the pandemic. Now, experts are really starting to sound the alarm,” Vroman Stokes told News 8.
The USPSTF started recommending screenings for depression in 12- to 18-year-olds in 2009. Vroman Stokes believes anxiety screenings are the logical next step, especially because some anxiety disorders can be “pretty tricky” to identify.
“Lots of children who struggle with anxiety tend to be quite self-conscious. They might have a lot of fears and worries about being open about what it is they’re struggling with,” Vroman Stokes said. “So unless their anxiety is really outwardly visible and starting to create problems that their caregivers or teachers might be able to visualize, children really might fly under the radar for quite some time.”
Some problems are easier to spot, like separation anxiety or having difficulty being away from a parent. Others, less so.
“Sometimes children with generalized anxiety have lots of ‘what if’ worries. So they might be frequently asking their families ‘What if this happens? Or what if that happens? How do I cope if this happens?’” Vroman Stokes said.
There are some common ways that anxiety manifests physically, notably unexplained fatigue, headaches or stomach aches, often at or near the onset of the “feared activity.”
“That might be a cue that there’s something internally that they are wrestling with,” she said.
Following the USPSTF recommendation, doctors won’t be forced to provide screenings. If your family doctor does not, there are several local resources available.
“I’m hopeful that more doctor’s offices, if they haven’t been screening for anxiety, will take these task force recommendations seriously and start integrating that into their annual visit with kiddos,” Vroman Stokes said. “(Some) pediatricians’ offices have a behavioral health specialist embedded right in the practice. … And if that’s not the case, certainly Pine Rest and other organizations in town have therapists who are equipped and trained to support families in better understanding anxiety and learning how they as a family system can support their child.”