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Screening kids for anxiety and depression early on could help stop crises, panel says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A national panel of health experts says all kids ages 8 years and older should be screened for anxiety. They also recommend that kids 12 and older continue to be screened for depression. The draft recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Task Force come during widespread concerns about the mental health of children all across the country. And as NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, health care providers have welcomed the panel's recommendations.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The mental health of children and teens in the U.S. has been getting worse for years before the pandemic. Marti Kubik is a professor of nursing at George Mason University and a member of the U.S. Preventative Task Force.

MARTI KUBIK: We were already seeing rising rates of anxiety, depression and also suicide behaviors and suicide in our young people.

CHATTERJEE: The pandemic only exacerbated things. That's what prompted the task force to look closely at research to see whether screening children using standardized questionnaires might benefit them.

KUBIK: The evidence supports that screening for anxiety and depression in older children and adolescents will help us identify children and allow us to connect them to care.

CHATTERJEE: But the two disorders often manifest at different ages - depression around age 12 or up and anxiety a few years earlier, hence the recommendation to start screening kids for anxiety at age 8.

JENNIFER HAVENS: But anxiety is an internalizing disorder. It can be quiet.

CHATTERJEE: Dr. Jennifer Havens chairs the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine.

HAVENS: Kids who are anxious are often very self-conscious and aren't going to share this with their families or their physicians, necessarily. So screening is a very, very good idea.

CHATTERJEE: And it's relatively easy to treat, says Havens, with psychotherapy in mild to moderate cases and medication as well for severe ones.

HAVENS: We have to treat mental health problems like health problems, that there are things that we can do early in life to keep kids healthy and prevent later problems.

CHATTERJEE: It's something that many pediatricians have started to recognize. Dr. Sandy Chung is president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She says the academy already recommends screening kids for anxiety, depression and even suicide.

SANDY CHUNG: We appreciate the task force, you know, making the recommendation. But in reality, many pediatricians are already doing the work.

CHATTERJEE: Like those at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, which cares for about 86,000 children.

MIGUELINA GERMAN: Our goal is to screen every single one of those 86,000 children for anxiety, depression and attention problems at their annual checkup once a year.

CHATTERJEE: Miguelina German is a pediatric psychologist at the center. She says the clinic starts screening kids as young as 4 years old.

GERMAN: It is much easier for me as a mental health practitioner to treat a 5-year-old with separation anxiety, which I could probably treat in two sessions, than a 15-year-old who has both anxiety and depression, which is probably going to require 12 sessions.

CHATTERJEE: She hopes the new recommendations will make this the standard of care for all kids across the country. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

CHANG: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.