Austin Regional Clinic Prioritizes Pediatric Mental Health Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Adapting 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 ensure that strong mental wellness in young people is treated as crucially as their physical health.

Natasha B. Ahmed, MD, a pediatrician at Austin Sendero Springs Regional Clinic in Round Rock, said she has always had a special interest in adolescent medicine, which naturally led to a focus on how mental health and behavioral disorders affect children and adolescents.

“No matter how smart 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,” said Dr. Ahmed. “They’re still processing it, so even naming those feelings becomes very difficult for them.”

Spotting mental health problems in youth can be complicated, but knowing the signs to look out for can help parents know when a problem is brewing. Dr Ahmed said a tell-tale sign is negative changes in routine, such as sleeping too much or too little, feeling guilty about even small things and reluctance to do activities that were once enjoyable.

Mood disorders can also present in unexplained physical symptoms. Whether it’s a stomach ache, an incurable heart attack, headaches or constant fatigue, anxiety and depression can manifest in a variety of ways.

“I have a decent amount of teenage and young girls who have abdominal pain … and then when you dig a little deeper, you find that every time they get anxious, their stomach starts to hurt,” said Dr. Ahmed. “It’s a very common thing for children to have physical symptoms that have some underlying psychological component.”

During the pandemic, social isolation and difficulties processing have also been catalysts for a decline in mental well-being. Although these conditions are difficult at any age, teenagers have been forced to learn how to cope during one of the most vulnerable transition periods in life.

“Several of my colleagues and I have had patients who lost a parent to COVID and asked, ‘Because I was playing with my friend and then my parent got sick, did I kill my parent?’ said Dr. Ahmed. “That’s an intense and complex thought for anyone, but extremely overwhelming for children this age to experience.”

The pandemic has also forced minors into virtual education, making it difficult for some students with ADHD and ADHD to self-regulate at home, said Dr. Ahmed. In addition to anxiety and depression, it has seen an influx of new ADHD and ADD diagnoses as parents finally saw the struggles their children’s teachers were having helping them stay on task or follow instructions. Then, returning to in-person classes proved challenging for many struggling with anxiety.

“The transition back to interpersonal school is very difficult for them. They just don’t know how to have those face-to-face interactions anymore,” Dr. Ahmed said.

The most overlapping and easiest definition for ADHD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression tends to be difficulty concentrating. When any symptom of a mental illness or behavioral disorder suddenly begins to affect a child’s ability to function, it’s time to seek help.

“Mental health has always been undervalued and underfunded and the COVID pandemic has made it much worse. The truth is that the resources are simply not there in the community to support the rapidly growing need for mental health care,” said Dr. Ahmed. “It’s very helpful to have a pediatrician who feels adequate for mental health treatment because we can’t always take them to see a therapist or a psychiatrist.”

As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, routine pediatric visits at ARC for children age 12 and older include screenings for anxiety and depression. Patients answer questions about their feelings and habits that help doctors identify potential problems and direct them to a therapist if needed, or may open the conversation to medication if treatment 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. . “That’s why it’s so important not to miss these confirmed visits.”

Children can always discuss mental health issues privately with their pediatrician. Often, they may reveal information about their emotional state, so they should be encouraged to spend time alone with their doctor if they wish.

In addition to screenings, ARC has pediatricians in each area 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 screenings are key to maintaining a child’s overall health, Dr. Ahmed said parents can help their child at home by having an affirming and non-judgmental attitude when their child shows signs of troubling behavior.

“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,” said Dr. Ahmed. “Try saying something like, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been talking/playing/eating a little less, is everything okay? Are you worried about anything? I promise not to get angry, but I’m here if you want to talk.’ Children who feel they have a supportive family and support structure do much better.”

Austin Regional Clinic has 23 locations throughout Austin and Central Texas with pediatricians available to help determine what kind of help a child needs and direct them to the right resources.

Learn more about pediatric mental health services at Austin Regional Clinic, read reviews of pediatricians in your area, and book a wellness screening at https://www.austinregionalclinic.com/.

The story above was created by Community Impact’s storytelling team with information provided exclusively by the local business as part of a “sponsored content” purchase through our advertising team. Our promise of integrity to our readers is to clearly identify all CI Storytelling posts as separate from content decided, researched and written by our journalism department.

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