Detecting Mental Illness in Pediatric Patients

A routine doctor’s visit isn’t just about a patient’s physical health.

“Mental health illnesses are pretty common – we probably spend 10 to 15 percent of our days seeing kids or teens who have some sort of mental health diagnosis,” says Dr. Leah Farley, a pediatrician at Beloit Health System. “We see ADHD more often in the younger kids, and with teenagers we tend to see more anxiety and depression.”

Farley asks all of her teenage patients if they have concerns about their mental health. Sometimes this leads to a standardized questionnaire screening.

“I generally try to do counseling with both the parents and the patient in the room about warning signs of anxiety and depression,” Farley says. “These illnesses in teenagers may not always present as the child seeming particularly anxious or sad.”

Teens may display decreased motivation, poor concentration or increased irritability.
If a parent calls with concerns, Farley jumps into triage mode.

“If there’s any concern that the child has any sort of suicidal ideation, then we send them directly to the emergency department where they’ll be evaluated by a social worker or a psychologist to make sure the child is safe at home,” she says.

A diagnosis of depression or anxiety is based on criteria in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Treatment is case by case and depends on the severity of the illness.

“It also depends on the child’s family and social structure,” Farley adds. “I always try and work with families to first do lifestyle modifications to help with mood.”

A common lifestyle modification is making sure the child is getting an appropriate amount of sleep, at least 8 to 10 hours a night, without phones or TVs on.

“The other thing we commonly see is kids who aren’t active enough,” Farley adds. “The more physical activity you get, the better it helps with mood. So, really try to make sure your child is getting out, getting active, moving around, not spending all day on the phone or sitting around at school.” ❚