Academics & Research

UH Sleep and Anxiety Center helps kids, teens

The Sleep and Anxiety Center for Kids, established at UH in September, has provided state-of-the-art treatment along with cutting-edge research concerning sleep and anxiety disorders in children.

“We work with children between the ages of three and 17 years who sometimes struggle with only one problem,” said associate professor Candice Alfano, who helped establish SACK.

“But in many cases, they struggle with several different problems related to anxiety and fear.”

Alfano said the fact that SACK is both a research facility and a treatment center is what separates SACK from many other places.

“Because we’re a research-based clinic — meaning that we not only treat these problems, we conduct research that is funded by the National Institutes of Health — the treatments and the techniques that we use are based on the latest evidence in terms of what has been shown to be effective,” Alfano said.

“That also means the families that call us have the opportunity to be involved in our research, which sometimes means they can receive treatment at no cost, and it’s really cutting-edge treatment that’s already been shown to be effective.”

Children don’t have to be eligible for research to receive treatment though, she said.

“If they don’t fit into any of our research studies, we can provide clinical services, and I oversee all of the work at SACK,” Alfano said.

“I have about 15 years of expertise in working with these problems, and so not only do families who come to us have that level of expertise, (they) also can be sure they’re getting the latest and most effective treatment that’s available.”

Anxiety in children can be caused by commonly acknowledged fears like spiders or heights, or more complex issues that Alfano says many people wouldn’t suspect children to worry about.

“We have a good number of kids who, at the age of seven-years-old, are already worried about where they’re going to go to college and worry extensively about things like finances, paying household bills, the future and making sure that the house is secure and taken care of, or things going on in the world,” she said.

Alfano said the reason SACK also focuses on sleep is that sleep and anxiety can often be interrelated.

“Not only do they co-occur, meaning that kids who are anxious very often have sleep problems, kids who have sleep problems often don’t get enough sleep at night and they tend to be kind of more anxious and avoid the next day, but we also know from research that when you have one problem, you’re much more likely to develop the other problem over time,” Alfano said.

“It can morph into something more complex, and of course the more complex it is, the harder it is to treat.”

Alfano said having SACK at UH is critical because children in Texas tend to be under-served in terms of mental health issues.

“In many cases, the sleep problems that kids have are really behavioral problems; they’re not medical problems and for the most part, physicians aren’t sure where to begin in behavioral therapy,” she said.

“So this is really adding something to the community — the care we can provide to children in the Houston area that to my knowledge wasn’t available before.”

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