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Attacking Childhood Anxiety in Primary Care

Ann L. Contrucci, MD

Disclosures

July 08, 2022

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 US 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 NIH 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, and/or the PHQ-A 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 8300 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.

The Big 4

An in-depth assessment of patient and family lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep, physical activity/exercise, and screen time habits is also basic and essential. This kind of evaluation usually cannot be done in the typical 15-minute visit and often will need to be done over several patient visits. I have had numerous conversations with my patients regarding what I call the "Big 4" — simple but not easy concepts and actions. They include nutrition, sleep, exercise, and screen time. Parents will look at me and say, "I can't believe I never thought of this!" Some of my favorite moments with patients over the years have involved partnering with the patient and family and encouraging them to do the "simple" but not "easy" things.

Nutrition

Does the child have proper nutrition? That is not meant to be an exercise in labeling foods as "good" or "bad" but meant to confirm whether there is a balance of different foods. It's also a way of exploring whether there are family meals in the home. Family meals have been shown to have a protective factor for children's social development and emotional regulation.

Sleep

Review the child's sleep habits, such as difficulty falling/staying asleep, bedtime routine (soothing, relaxing activities vs the opposite), nightmares, snoring, nighttime cough, etc. The physical sleeping environment is important as well. Is it quiet? Is it a crowded room?

Exercise

Discuss physical activity with the family. Is there time for the child to play outside without a defined goal? So much of a child's day is structured, in school or with after school activities, but can the kid simply be a kid? Does the family take walks together? Is it safe to play outside?

Screen Time

Reviewing screen time is important for multiple reasons, especially because the more time spent in front of a TV, computer, or video game, the less time there is to be physically active. Numerous experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend limits on screen time for children. For adolescents, there appears to be some evidence that excessive screen time contributes to depression/anxiety.

I am not embarrassed to say that with my own kids I felt so strongly about screen time that we did not own any kind of video games or iPad (that was theirs alone), and they spent the summers until they turned 14 building a two-story bamboo fort in our backyard instead of vegging out in front of the TV or computer. It didn't hurt them a bit; one is an engineer and the other is in nursing school.

It is easy to see that lifestyle factors can come into play with childhood anxiety and are often ignored in the clinical setting. They do not involve technologically advanced techniques or procedures, which are more likely to be reimbursed. They are straightforward — but not easy — concepts, and require active participation from the patient and family. Some of my most exciting moments with families is when they return for follow up and say, "It worked!"

We need to be as comfortable taking care of a child's mind and spirit as we are taking care of a child's physical body. Is this easy in a busy office? No. Is this easy in a 15-minute visit? No. Is this easy with poor reimbursement from insurance companies? No. Is it necessary? Unequivocally YES. Start the conversation.

Tag, you're it!

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About Dr Ann Contrucci
Ann L. Contrucci, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician with almost 30 years' clinical experience. She has practiced rural and suburban primary care as well as urban and suburban pediatric emergency medicine throughout her career. She also had her own solo practice in Ontario, Canada. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Clinical Education Department at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Her particular areas of expertise and passion include mental and emotional health issues in children and adolescents, in particular anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and eating disorders.

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