Attacking childhood anxiety in primary care


Multiple media outlets and numerous children’s professional organizations are discussing the child and adolescent mental health crisis. Finally, society at large seems to be taking notice that our kids are not okay, and that they haven’t been okay for a long time.

Over the past 5-7 years, both in my practice in tertiary children’s hospital emergency departments and in primary care pediatrics, I have seen a disturbing decline in kids’ mental well-being. What can a primary care physician do to make a difference? How do we capitalize on these discussions about mental health and illness now that it is rising to a priority status?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently drafted a statement of recommendations specifically discussing anxiety in children and adolescents. It shows supporting evidence that there is a moderate benefit to screening children 8-18 years old for anxiety. We know from the 2018-2019 National Survey of Children’s Health that almost 8% of children/adolescents ages 3-17 years old have an anxiety disorder. And among those 13-18 years old, the lifetime prevalence rises to nearly 33%, according to National Institutes of Health statistics.

Childhood anxiety unquestionably increases the chances of persistent anxiety or depression in adulthood. I have followed children who had excessive social anxiety from age 3 or 4 who progressed to generalized anxiety disorder as adolescents, usually when no intervention was done or when the family waited for the child to “outgrow” it. The DSM-5 has six separate categories for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents: generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, specific phobias, social phobia, agoraphobia, and panic disorder. Unfortunately, these illnesses cannot be wished away.

Screening, diagnosis, and follow-up

A few simple screening tools can be used to check for anxiety in children and adolescents. These include SCARED (Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders), GAD-7 (Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7), and/or the PHQ-A (Patient Health Questionnaire for Adolescents). Keep in mind that a screening tool is just that – a screen. Diagnostic confirmation and follow-up are appropriate after a positive screen. I like all of these particular screens as they are easy to administer and can be incorporated into a busy practice without extra training to administer. They are also easy for parents and patients to complete prior to a visit or during a visit.

Ideally, after a positive screen, the next step is to consult a child and adolescent psychiatrist (CAP); however, according to statistics from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are only 8,300 CAPs in the United States. The reality is that not a single state in the entire country has a “mostly sufficient supply” of CAP’s (defined as ≥ 47 per 100,000 children). In fact, most have a “severe shortage,” defined as 1-17 per 100,000 children

Adding a child/adolescent therapist is also necessary for patients 8 years old and up, but the harsh truth is that it may take up to several months before the child is seen. If a patient is in a rural or other underserved area, it may be even longer.

So, what does this mean for primary care physicians? When you are faced with a positive screening for childhood anxiety, the next step is “tag, you’re it!” Understandably, this is frightening for many physicians who feel unqualified.

Don’t be afraid! Like the old adage says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Starting the conversation with patients and families is foremost. Physicians must be first in line to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the easiest way to do that is to start the conversation. Remember that anxiety in kids can present as classic fear or worry, but it also can present as irritability, anger outbursts, and attention issues. There have been so many patients referred to me for “being out of control” or “always angry” or “probable ADHD” who turned out to have significant anxiety.

Part of a routine medical evaluation includes obtaining personal, family, and social history; there should be no difference when considering an anxiety disorder. Obtaining information about family history, personality traits, environmental components, early attachment issues, developmental history, parental style, parental conflict, occupants in the home, any adverse childhood events, and history of child maltreatment is crucial. Assessing other risk factors, including socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and gender, is key as well. I have seen families literally breathe a sigh of relief when these questions are asked. Parents feel heard and seen. And, equally significant, so does the child/adolescent.


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