ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — An important check on children’s mental health as families are in the back-to-school season. The American Academy of Pediatrics is now urging for routine suicide screenings in adolescents, despite a national task force calling for more research.

Last fall, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, along with the Children’s Hospital Association, declared a national emergency in children’s mental health.

They cited the serious toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of existing challenges.

“The rates of depression, in particular, among teenagers, have gone up dramatically and that actually proceeds the pandemic. We’ve seen rates of anxiety disorders go up, as well and those have clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Scharf, Chief Psychiatrist with Golisano’s Pediatric Behavioral Health & Wellness Center, through URMC.

This past spring, a national panel under the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended screening for general anxiety disorders for all children ages 8 to 18. Screening for depression is recommended for those ages 12 to 18.

According to AAP, suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for youth 10 years old to 24.

“This is a real tragedy. The biggest increase has been in the age 10 – 14,” Dr. Scharf said.

On suicide risk, however, the task force concluded there is insufficient evidence to weigh the benefits and harms of screening asymptomatic children and adolescents.

“The important thing to recognize there, though, is that a lack of published efficacy is not the same as proof of lack of efficacy. The statement by that task force is literally that there’s not enough data to speak to the advantages,” said Dr. Scharf.

“The reason to do it anyway is that asking a couple of questions, there’s also no evidence that it does any harm. And if you can discover a risk for suicide in youth who, up to that point, you as a clinician, or a family member are unaware of you can really save a life,” Dr. Scharf adds.

In the meantime, when it comes to noticing signs and regarding tips on how to start a conversation with your child to ‘check in’ on their mental health, Dr. Scharf advises parents, caregivers and friends to approach with curiosity and gentleness.

“What I’m really encouraging, though, is when you notice something, don’t let it go. Again, if it’s not an obvious crisis, you might not address it that minute. If a kid looks different at breakfast, you don’t have to drop everything and stop everyone’s day… but remember it, and then see how they look at dinner. And check in and really try to understand what’s driving the difference,” he explained.

Dr. Scharf also notes that parents have the special and unique ability to truly know their child, better than any doctor or specialist can, urging them to ‘trust their gut,’ and if they are not sure, questions can always be asked to a primary care physician for a starting point.

One resource parents and clinicians can utilize is Project TEACH, a statewide program. It offers examples of screenings used for a variety of mental health conditions for teens and children.