Mental health screenings for children and teens will help K-12 schools support social-emotional skills, says expert
First-time actions taken by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to enforce universal mental health screenings for children in schools K-12 will help address the growing concern of the mental health crisis among children and teens.
Rosanna Breaux, director of the Child Study Center and an assistant professor with the Virginia Tech Department of Psychology, says the mental-health crisis in children and adolescents unfortunately is not new. “There was growing recognition pre-pandemic of the significant increase in mental-health disorders in children. The pandemic has only made this mental-health crisis worse.”
For many children and teens, Breaux says the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful two-plus years with hybrid or remote learning, raising concern for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behavior.
“Preventive services such as screening, counseling services, and preventive medication are essential to the health and well-being of children and teens,” Breaux says. “Given the shortage of mental-health providers for children and teens, there’s a growing need for universal screenings for mental health support in schools.”
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is recommending that schools screen children 12 and older for depression, and children 8 and older for anxiety.
Research indicates that individual therapy or even small group therapy is not possible for most children and adolescents given provider shortages and other barriers to accessing traditional therapy.
“It’s critical that we work to equip teachers with the tools necessary to help foster children’s social-emotional skills to cope with stress and anxiety,” Breaux says.
Demands and waitlists
According to the American Psychological Association, just 4,000 out of a total of 102,000 psychologists nationwide -- around 4 percent -- are clinical child and adolescent psychologists. There was a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists pre-COVID-19, and the pandemic has exacerbated this shortage of child and adolescent practitioners.
“The more specialized something is the harder it is to get appointments and the longer the waitlist. Child and adolescent mental health, unfortunately, falls into this category. There are far more psychologists and psychiatrists comfortable working with adults than with children and adolescents,” says Breaux.
“When waitlists are six months to a year out, that is a long time in a child’s life and this can be frustrating for families as they go through the day-to-day struggles of supporting a child with mental-health difficulties,” Breaux says.
Breaux also says there’s growing support that telehealth is just as effective as in-person therapy. She says that just like in-person therapy, there is variability in providers, and there are likely a lot of individual factors that may predict whether telehealth is a good ‘fit’ for a particular family/child.
“Telehealth therapy seems to address many of the barriers such as transportation and childcare to accessing therapy, and can lead to higher attendance rates as a result.”
About Rosanna Breaux
Rosanna Breaux is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Child Study Center, both part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. Her research focuses on the emotional, academic, and social functioning of children and adolescents, particularly those with ADHD.
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