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Experts recommend screening kids for mental health issues

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SALT LAKE CITY — A national health task force now recommends that pediatricians screen kids for mental health issues as early as 8 years old. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening children eight and up for anxiety, and kids 12 and up for depression during routine wellness checks.

A child and adolescent psychiatrist with Huntsman Mental Health Institute who is also a pediatrician said she likes those recommendations because they can lead to help for the child sooner if it’s necessary.

“The earlier you can identify these illnesses, the better off you are,” Dr. Kristi Kleinschmit said.

She said the majority of mental illness begins in children earlier than age 14 and can develop and worsen over time. Earlier identification of mental health issues may help some children avoid debilitating anxiety that makes them fearful of school and other social situations.

In the past, the recommendation for pediatricians was to screen for anxiety and depression at age 12. Kleinschmit said the earlier anxiety or depression can be identified, the sooner it can be treated to change the child’s wellness trajectory.

“I think it’s only fitting that we could start to ask those questions during those well-child visits or even those stomach ache and headache visits that kids come in with just to make sure that we’re not missing early signs of depression and anxiety in our kids,” Kleinschmit said.

Left untreated anxiety and depression can continue into adulthood.

What should parents look for?

“The younger the child, they’re not going to say ‘Wow I’m really nervous about this.’ Instead, they’re going to want to avoid things. They might have headaches, they might have tummy aches. They might insist on things going a certain way,” the doctor said.

They might also have trouble sleeping or show an excessive level of concern about typical childhood fears. Starting this conversation at an earlier age can help the children and the parents.

“The earlier we treat this the more we give hope that these are treatable illnesses,” Kleinschmit said.

She recommends that parents create an ongoing conversation with their kids that is open, curious, and positive.

“Gosh, I’m curious. What’s going on? I’d like to talk to you more about this. Some kids will say they’re feeling sad and irritable. I’m wondering whether you’ve been feeling that way too?”

The psychiatrist and pediatrician said these screenings will be new for some pediatricians. She suggests that parents arrive for their child’s next wellness checkup ready to ask questions about mental health screenings.

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