NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in mental health in this country last year. Now, a new study by a national task force recommends pediatricians start screening for signs of anxiety at a much younger age than in the past.

“In Virginia, 11% of children ages three to 17 have either anxiety or depression,” said Dr. Kristina Powell, a CHKD pediatrician in Williamsburg, and the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Powell says pediatricians have been screening for depression in kids 12 and up since 2016, but at this time, there’s no routine screening for asymptomatic children at well-checks. A new study by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) aims to change that. The group recommends doctors screen children as young as eight for anxiety, even if they show no symptoms.

“We hope that by screening for anxiety sooner, at age eight and up, that we may help to intervene earlier and prevent the depression and substance abuse that we’re seeing later,” said Dr. Powell.

You might wonder why children struggle with anxiety so young.

“A lot of kids are overstructured. There’s a lot of screen time, and then, of course, all the trauma from COVID. That has exacerbated things. During COVID, I think about 200,000 kids have lost a parent or caregiver. So, that’s a lot of trauma that’s occurred. So, we see it very young, and that’s why it’s great that this screening is going to happen. We can pick it up earlier, and it’s all about early intervention.”

Dr. Powell says it can be a challenge for families to recognize the signs of anxiety.

“Sometimes in younger kids, it’s separation anxiety or a specific phobia. They may be afraid to go upstairs alone or be in the dark. As kids get older, it looks a little bit different. Sometimes it’s social anxiety. In high schoolers, for example, sometimes some of the most popular, outgoing kids, they too can suffer from anxiety.”

Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety you want to keep an eye out for include chronic headaches, stomach aches, and trouble sleeping. Dr. Powell says there are treatment options depending on the severity of the anxiety.

“We want to make sure everyone is taking care of themselves, eating well, sleeping well, exercising every day, having some downtime.”

If the anxiety is severe, doctors may suggest counseling or even medication. No matter what, Dr. Powell believes this recommendation is the right move for our children.

“There’s wonderful recognition right now that mental health is just as important as our physical health. So, we’re trying to break down the stigma, and start asking about it and addressing it earlier.”

Dr. Powell says it could take up to six months, possibly a year, to get doctors and staff up to speed on the new guidelines and the best ways to implement the screenings.

For a closer look at the study by the USPSTF, click here.