A leading panel of doctors has recommended all American children over the age of eight to be screened for anxiety – even if they do not have symptoms.
The US Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), one of the most influential bodies in American health care, issued the new guidelines on Tuesday.
It also is pushing for doctors to screen all children over the age of 12 for depression no matter their reported symptoms.
The group believes cases are going undiagnosed because of a shortage in physicians and a spike in mental health problems following the pandemic.
Just last month the same panel recommended that all adults aged 18 to 65 receive a screening for both conditions.
If doctors were to follow the recommendations of the task force it would involve checking at least 200million Americans.
Experts have expressed concerns over these recommendations, fearing it could lead to an over-medicated population and another opioid-like crisis.
The most common anxiety medications fall into the class of benzodiazepines, with highly addictive drugs like Xanax, Klomopin, and Valium.
A leading panel of US doctors now recommends all children over the age of eight to be screened for anxiety and all over 12 to be screened for depression. Some experts fear these screenings could spur addiction to anti-anxiety medication (file photo)
Dr Matha Kubik, a member of the USPSTF and nursing professor at George Mason University, said: ‘The Task Force reviewed the evidence on screening for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk to provide primary care professionals with guidance on how they can help support the mental health of children and adolescents.
‘Fortunately, screening older children for anxiety and depression can identify these conditions so children and teens can receive the care that they need.’
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Anxiety is a normal part of life that affects different people in different ways at different times.
Whereas stress can come and go, anxiety often persists and does not always have an obvious cause.
Along with depression, anxiety is among the most common mental-health condition in the UK, affecting 8.2million people in 2013 alone.
Around 40million adults suffer from the condition in the US every year.
Anxiety can make a person imagine things in their life are worse than they are or that they are going mad.
Although it evolved as part of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in our caveman days to avoid danger, anxiety can be inappropriately activated in everyday life when stress builds up.
It can have a clear cause, such as moving house or having surgery. However, sometimes little life events build up until a person is unable to cope, with anxiety then taking them by surprise.
Physical symptoms can include:
- Increased heart rate and muscle tension
- Hyperventilation and dizziness
- A tight band across the chest
- Tension headaches
- Hot flushes
- ‘Jelly legs’
- Feeling like you are choking
- Tingling in the hands and feet
Some psychological symptoms are:
- Thinking you are going mad or losing control
- Thinking you may die or get ill
- Feeling people are staring at you
- Feeling detached from others or on edge
Treatment often involves counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.
Activates like yoga, exercise, reading and socialising can help to manage anxiety.
The independent panel, while highly respected, holds no enforcement power and physicians are under no requirement to follow their guidance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that eight per cent of children aged three to 17 years old suffers from an anxiety disorder.
And a report from Yale University indicates around 3 per cent of under-18s has depression.
Rates are believed to have surged during the pandemic, where disruptions to everyday life and limited social interactions harmed many younger people.
‘The Task Force cares deeply about the mental health of all children and adolescents,’ said Dr Lori Pbert, a psychologist from the University of Massachusetts.
‘Unfortunately, there are key evidence gaps related to screening for anxiety and depression in younger children and screening for suicide risk in all youth.
‘We are calling for more research in these critical areas so we can provide healthcare professionals with evidence-based ways to keep their young patients healthy.’
Experts told DailyMail.com the new recommendations could spur a surge in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication.
Some fear these highly addictive drugs are already at the center of a budding addiction crisis in the US.
Dr Anna Lembke, chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University, told DailyMail.com: ‘In the United States when the Joint Commission mandated that all doctors screen all patients for pain, even when patient’s did not come in for pain complaints or demonstrate physical stigmata of being in pain, the result was increased opioid prescribing, contributing to our current opioid epidemic.
‘I could see something similar happening with mandated screening of anxiety.’
Dr Lembke said she has the same concerns for screening children that she had for screening adults.
Others have warned that making primary care physicians screen patients for mental health disorders instead of psychologists was improper.
Dr Jonathan Shedler, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told Fox News last month that these doctors do not have the proper training.
These types of screenings could also put a person who reports no symptoms on a path towards dependency on highly addictive drugs.
‘This kind of screening is going to diagnose huge numbers of people with a disorder and a good number of them are going to end up on a lifelong path of one medication and one treatment after another,’ Dr Shedler explained.
‘When, in fact, they’re responding to realistic circumstances in the world.’
Dr Anna Lembke (left), chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University, compared the guidance to prescription pain pill recommendations blamed for sparking the opioid crisis in the US. Dr Jonathan Shedler (right), a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said that primary care physicians are not equipped to screen for anxiety
Drugs like Valium, Klonopin, and Xanax – which all fall under the umbrella of benzodiazepines, or ‘benzos’ – as specifically dangerous.
The drugs are highly addictive and their intense side-effects have made them popular party drugs.
A person who uses the drugs each day to manage severe cases of anxiety could become dependent on them in a matter of weeks, studies suggest.
The body builds tolerance to the drugs as well, meaning a frequent use will need more-and-more over time to control their addiction.
Like opioids, eventually prescriptions run out or become unobtainable.
In most extreme cases, users turn to the street where versions of the drug that could have dangerous contaminants like fentanyl circulate.
Fentanyl is the main driver of America’s drug overdose crisis, responsible for 70 per cent of the 107,000 overdose deaths recorded in the US in 2021.