Children as young as 8 years old should be screened for anxiety and those ages 12 and over for depression, according to new recommendations by the government-backed US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
The guidance for healthcare providers, still in draft form, applies to children and teens who are not showing signs or symptoms of these conditions.
"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 of George Mason University said in a statement. "Fortunately, we found that screening older children for anxiety and depression is effective in identifying these conditions." Follow-up care can reduce symptoms of depression and can improve, and potentially resolve, anxiety, the statement said.
While the problem of undiagnosed mental health issues in children predates the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and psychologists have warned that the impact of the health crisis on some children may be traumatic.
Online schooling, lockdowns, social distancing requirements, mask wearing and other lifestyle changes could have significant impacts on children's mental health, experts have said.
The USPSTF did not find enough evidence to determine whether it would be beneficial to screen children for anxiety before age 8 or for depression before age 12, or whether to screen any children for suicide risk.
"More research on these important conditions is critical," said task force member Lori Pbert of University of Massachusetts Medical School. "In the meantime, healthcare professionals should use their clinical judgment based on individual patient circumstances when deciding whether or not to screen." The drafts are available for public comment until May 9.