Adjusting to life in a pandemic has not been easy for anyone, but for many children and teenagers, COVID-19 has profoundly affected their physical, mental and emotional well-being. At Austin Regional Clinic, pediatricians work to make sure that strong mental health in young people is just as important as their physical health.
Natasha B. Ahmed, MD, a pediatrician at Austin Sendero Springs Regional Clinic in Round Rock, said she’s always had a special interest in adolescent medicine, which naturally led to a focus on how mental health and behavioral disorders affect children and teens.
“No matter how intelligent they are, [children and teenagers] they just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be able to describe a lot of the things they feel,” Dr. Ahmed said. “They’re still processing it, so even naming those emotions becomes really difficult for them.”
Identifying mental health issues in youth can be tricky, but knowing the signs to look out for can help parents know when a problem is brewing. Dr. Ahmed said one telltale sign is negative changes in routine, such as sleeping too much or too little, feeling guilty about even small things, and not wanting to do activities that were once enjoyable.
Mood disorders can also manifest in physical symptoms that have no other explanation. Whether it’s stomach aches, palpitations, headaches, or constant fatigue, anxiety and depression can manifest in a variety of ways.
“I have a fair amount of teenage girls and young girls who have stomach aches … and then when you dig a little deeper, you find that whenever they’re stressed, their stomachs start to hurt,” said d Mr. Ahmed. “It’s very common for children to have physical symptoms that have some underlying psychological component.”
During the pandemic, social isolation and difficulties in processing were also catalysts for deteriorating mental well-being. Although these circumstances are difficult at any age, adolescents have been forced to learn how to cope during one of life’s most vulnerable transitional periods.
“Several of my colleagues and I have had patients who lost a parent to COVID and they asked, ‘Because I was playing with my friend and then my parent got sick, did I kill my parent?'” Dr. Ahmed said. “It’s an intense and complex thought for anyone, but it’s extremely overwhelming for children of this age to experience.”
The pandemic has also forced minors into virtual school, making it difficult for some students with ADHD and ADD to self-regulate at home, Dr. Ahmed said. In addition to anxiety and depression, she has seen an influx of new ADHD and ADD diagnoses as parents finally witness the struggles their children’s teachers have had helping them stay on task or follow directions. Then, returning to class proved challenging for many struggling with anxiety.
“The transition back to boarding school is very difficult for them. They just don’t know how to have those face-to-face interactions anymore,” Dr. Ahmed said.
The biggest overlap and easiest identifier for ADHD, ADD, anxiety and depression is usually difficulty concentrating. When any symptom of a mental illness or behavioral disorder suddenly begins to affect a child’s functional abilities, it’s time to seek help.
“Mental health has always been under-addressed and under-funded, and the COVID pandemic has made this much worse. The truth is that society simply lacks the resources to support the rapidly growing need for mental health care,” said Dr. Ahmed. “It’s so helpful to have a pediatrician who feels like a mental health treatment because we can’t always get them to see a therapist or a psychiatrist.”
In accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, routine pediatric visits at the ARC for children ages 12 and older include screenings for anxiety and depression. Patients answer questions about their emotions and habits, which help doctors identify potential problems and refer them to a therapist if needed, or can open the discussion about medication if therapy is already underway.
“If we look at that questionnaire and see it’s elevated, that’s a sign for us to talk more about how they answered the questions and, if necessary, schedule a separate visit to talk about it in more detail,” said Dr. Ahmed. “That’s why it’s so important not to miss these check-ups.”
Children can always discuss mental health issues privately with their pediatrician. They can often reveal information about their emotional state, so they should be encouraged to have time alone with their doctor if they choose.
In addition to examinations, ARC has pediatricians in each region who are able to provide a higher level of care through medication management, which includes diagnosing and treating ADHD, anxiety and depression.
While regular mental health check-ups are key to maintaining a child’s overall health, Dr Ahmed said parents can help their child at home by being supportive and non-judgmental when their child shows signs of worrying behaviour.
“I really want to emphasize how parents can start a conversation with their kids, because I think that’s probably the thing that parents struggle with the most,” Dr. Ahmed said. “Try saying something like, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been talking/playing/eating a little less, is that all right?’ Are you worried about something? I promise not to get mad, but I’m here if you want to talk. Children who feel they have a supportive family and a supportive structure do much better.”
Austin Regional Clinic has 23 locations in Austin and Central Texas with pediatricians to help determine the type of care a child needs and refer them to the appropriate resources.
Learn more about pediatric mental health services at Austin Regional Clinic, read reviews of pediatricians in your area, and book a health screening at https://www.austinregionalclinic.com/.
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