An influential panel of experts are recommending that children as young as 8 get routinely screened for anxiety. The recommendation adds to their previous guidance that children 12 or older should be screened for depression. However, they refrained from advising that children younger than 11 get depression screening or that children in general be screened for suicide risk, citing a lack of sufficient evidence.
The recommendations come from the United States Preventive Services Task Force, or USPSTF. Though the USPSTF is under the umbrella of the US Department of Health and Human Services, task force members are voluntary outside experts brought in to provide recommendations on a variety of topics related to the prevention of health problems. Their guidelines carry significant weight among health care professionals and even influence the insurance coverage of preventative treatments.
One of the areas covered by the USPSTF is the type of mental health services that should be offered to young children and teens during health care visits. In 2016, they recommended that children over the age of 12 be routinely screened for clinical depression. Their latest draft guidelines, released Tuesday, maintain this advice, but for the first time they’re calling for children as young as 8 to be screened for anxiety as well. Both guidelines are for children who aren’t visibly experiencing or reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“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,” said task force member Martha Kubik, a registered nurse and researcher at George Mason University, in a statement from the USPSTF. “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.”
The evidence, for now at least, is less certain for other areas of screening, according to the task force. As before, they ruled that there isn’t enough data to know whether or not suicide risk screening for children in general is beneficial, or for widespread depression screening of children under 11. They’re calling for more research on these topics specifically. And in the meantime, they’re advising that health care professionals use their own judgment to decide when patients might need this kind of screening on a case-by-case basis.
The recommendations may be more relevant than ever. Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that more than 40% of high school students have felt hopeless or persistently sad during the first half of 2021—numbers that have increased since before the pandemic.
These guidelines are still in their draft version, though, so there is a chance they may vary before their final publication. From now until early May, members of the public and other scientists will be allowed to offer their comments on the decision.