New Statement Guides the Diagnosis of Pediatric Anxiety

Kate Johnson

November 01, 2022

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) has issued a position statement on the diagnosis of anxiety disorders in children and youth. The organization aims to "offer evidence-informed guidance to support pediatric health care providers making decisions around the care of children and adolescents with these conditions."

Dr Benjamin Klein

"It's been a long time coming," lead author Benjamin Klein, MD, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, told Medscape Medical News. The target audience for the documents includes community pediatricians, subspecialists, family doctors, and nurse practitioners. "There was a great demand from that audience for a position statement, for guidance, obviously in the backdrop of rising child and adolescent mental health incidence over the years, and of course COVID," said Klein.

The statement was published October 20 on the CPS website.

"A Comprehensive Approach"

Although many other guidelines on this topic are available, it was important to have a Canadian document, said Klein. "Obviously, there's going to be a great deal of overlap with European or American guidelines, but it's just kind of assumed that people want specifically Canadian content.... [P]hysicians want to know that they're practicing within a standard of care in Canada." Klein is medical director of the Lansdowne Children's Centre, which provides help for children with communication, developmental, and physical special needs across Ontario.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders among children and adolescents in Canada, according to the position statement. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) groups these disorders into separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder (social phobia), panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Distinguishing normal, age-appropriate anxiety from anxiety disorder, while also recognizing other comorbidities, is complicated, said Klein. "Anxiety is one possible diagnosis or feature, and children with mental health and developmental problems often present with a number of problems. Anxiety may be one of them, but if it's one of them, it may not be the main driver. So, a comprehensive approach is needed...combining the medical model with biopsychosocial thinking to give a better picture of anxiety in the context of anything else that may be contributing to a presentation."

The statement outlines recommendations for anxiety assessment, starting with a screening questionnaire such as the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED), which is completed by parents and children, to assess symptom severity. Standardized measures for medical, mental health, and developmental histories are available on the CPS website.

The document next recommends an interview about presenting concerns (such as sleep problems or school difficulties), inciting events, and parent-child interactions. The process includes confidential, nonjudgmental interviews with adolescents using a history-taking tool such as HEEADSSS (Home, Education/Employment, Eating, Activities, Drugs, Sexuality, Suicide/Mental Health, and Safety).

"The diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders kind of sounds simple if you just read about it as an isolated thing, but the reality is…there's no MRI. It's detective work," said Klein. Clinicians must distinguish between normal anxiety, situational anxiety, and specific anxiety disorder, he added. He usually allows 90 minutes for an anxiety assessment, partly to gain the patient's trust. "These are sensitive issues. It's common that people don't trust a diagnosis if you haven't spent enough time with them. That relational care piece just needs to be there, or people aren't going to buy in."

The CPS position statement was reviewed and endorsed by the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Methodology Unclear

Commenting on the statement for Medscape, Joanna Henderson, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth, and Family Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said that the guidelines have been released at an important time. "Conversations about mental health have become more common, and many children, youth, and families are reaching out for support. It is essential that healthcare professionals be equipped with accessible information about practices to provide appropriate care. These guidelines support that vision."

Dr Joanna Henderson

It would be helpful to know more about the methods used to arrive at the recommendations, however, said Henderson. "It is critical that healthcare providers be guided by evidence-based guidelines that adhere to criteria for establishing high-quality guidelines. Because the authors did not provide information about their methods, I am not able to provide a comment about the quality of their guidelines. There are established approaches for evaluating quality, and I would encourage the authors to publish as a supplement to this article their methods, including in reference to the Appraisal of Guidelines for Research and Evaluation (AGREE II) checklist."

In the absence of readily available information about methods, she said, "clinicians are encouraged to use guidelines from sources that provide information about the guideline development process and include quality appraisal," such as the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which is "generally recognized as a reputable source for high-quality practice guidelines."

Responding to this concern, Klein said, "There is no specific evidence base for diagnosis. That robust science doesn't exist. No one has done randomized controlled trials of different methods of diagnosing kids with anxiety. We looked at other position statements, we looked at textbooks, and obviously we drew from our own clinical experience, so it comes from clinical judgment and expert opinion."

Henderson also noted that in the future, "it will be important to contextualize the recommendations by highlighting the importance of cultural competence in conducting assessments and providing treatment." Moreover, current evidence can be expanded through the incorporation of diverse cultural and racial perspectives, experiences, and data, she added.

Health service providers should reflect on their own potential biases, which can influence clinician-patient interactions, Henderson continued. It also is important to consider biases in the evidence, which influence practice. Clinicians should also consider how their recommendations fit with patients' "cultural and race-based experiences, beliefs, and practices."

No source of funding for the position statement was reported. Klein and Henderson had disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Kate Johnson is a Montreal-based freelance medical journalist who has been writing for more than 30 years about all areas of medicine


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