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

Adjusting to life during a pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but for many children and teens, COVID-19 has profoundly affected their physical, mental and emotional well-being. At the Austin Regional Clinic, pediatricians ensure that the mental well-being of young people is treated as crucially as their physical health.

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

“As smart as they are, [children and teenagers] just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be able to describe a lot of the things they’re feeling,” Dr. Ahmed said. “They’re still processing it, so even naming those emotions becomes a very difficult thing for them.”

Identifying mental health issues in young people can be tricky, but knowing the signs to watch out for can help parents know when a problem arises. Dr Ahmed said a telltale sign is negative changes in routine, such as sleeping too much or too little, feeling guilty for even small things, and reluctance to do activities that were once enjoyable.

Mood disorders can also present as physical symptoms that have no other explanation. Whether it’s an upset stomach, racing heartbeat, headaches, or constant fatigue, anxiety and depression can manifest in a variety of ways.

“I have a decent number of teenage girls and young girls who have abdominal pain…and then when you dive a little deeper you find that every time they get stressed their stomach starts hurting. “, said Dr. Ahmed. “A very common thing in children is to have physical symptoms that have an underlying psychological component.”

During the pandemic, social isolation and treatment difficulties have also been catalysts for declining mental well-being. While these circumstances are difficult at any age, teenagers have been forced to learn to cope during one of life’s most vulnerable transitional times.

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

The pandemic has also forced minors into virtual schooling, which has made it difficult for some students with ADHD and ADD to self-regulate at home, Dr Ahmed said. Along with anxiety and depression, she has seen an influx of new diagnoses of ADHD and ADD as parents finally witness the struggles their children’s teachers have had to help them stay on task. or follow the instructions. Then, returning to in-person classes proved to be a challenge for many who struggle with anxiety.

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

The greatest overlap and simplest identifier for ADHD, ADD, anxiety, and depression tends to be difficulty concentrating. When a symptom of mental illness or behavioral disorder suddenly begins to affect a child’s functional ability, it’s time to seek help.

“Mental health has always been under-treated and under-funded and the COVID pandemic has made the situation worse. The truth is that the resources are simply not there in the community to meet the rapidly growing need for mental health care,” said Dr Ahmed. “It’s so helpful to have a pediatrician who feels able to deal with mental health because we can’t always get them to see a therapist or a psychiatrist.”

Per a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, routine pediatric visits to ARC for children 12 and older include screenings for anxiety and depression. Patients answer questions about their emotions and habits that help doctors identify potential problems and refer them to a therapist if needed or can open the discussion about medications if therapy is already underway.

“If we look at this questionnaire and see that it is high, it is a sign for us to talk more about how they answered the questions and, if necessary, to schedule a separate visit to talk about it in more detail” , said Dr. Ahmed. . “That’s why it’s so important not to skip those check-ups.”

Children can always discuss mental health issues privately with their pediatrician. Often they can disclose 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 region who are able to provide a higher level of care through medication management, which involves diagnosing and treating ADHD, anxiety and depression. .

Although regular mental checks are essential to keep track of a child’s overall health, Dr Ahmed said parents can help their child at home by adopting a validating and non-judgmental attitude when their child shows signs of disturbing behavior.

“I really want to highlight 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 noticed you’re talking/playing/eating a little less, are you okay? Are you worried about something? I promise not to get angry but I’m here if you want to talk. Children who feel like they have a supportive family and support structure do much better.

The Austin Regional Clinic has 23 locations across Austin and Central Texas with pediatricians available to help determine the type of help a child needs and direct them to the appropriate resources.

Learn more about pediatric mental health services at the Austin Regional Clinic, read reviews from pediatricians in your area, and book a wellness checkup at

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