In April, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended health screenings for kids and teens ages 8 to 18. Now, the independent panel of experts is making that same call for all adults under the age of 65, in what HealthDay News notes is a nod to the fact that anxiety disorders "have run rampant during the pandemic." For adults 65 and over, such screenings aren't being recommended, as some signs of anxiety, such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, and generalized pain, can also be present simply due to aging. The guidance draft released Tuesday notes that, based on data from 2001-2002, the "lifetime prevalance" of anxiety disorders—which include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, selective mutism, separation anxiety disorder, and anxiety otherwise not specified—was already 26.4% for men and 40.4% for women.
But since early 2020, when the pandemic started wreaking havoc, "Americans have been reporting outsize anxiety levels," due to COVID worries, mourning the loss of loved ones, and dealing with indirect hits such as inflation, notes the New York Times. One study cited by the task force found that from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults who'd recently experienced anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms rose from 36.4% to 41.5%. "COVID has taken a tremendous toll on the mental health of Americans," Lori Pbert, a task force member and professor at UMass' Chan Medical School, tells the Washington Post. Mahmooda Qureshi, an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, agrees, noting, "After 2020, it’s the rare patient who is not anxious." There are challenges, however, that come with this recommendation.
For one, there's currently a clinician shortage, and funding is needed to bulk up that workforce. Plus, the logistics of adding yet another screening to a 15-minute doctor's appointment—a visit that often already includes screenings for cancer, domestic violence, food insecurity, and drug and alcohol use—can seem daunting. But the panel's experts stress the importance of such screenings, including the fact that they may help remedy racial inequities in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. "It's a crisis in this country," Pbert tells the New York Times. "Our only hope is that our recommendations throw a spotlight on the need to create greater access to mental health care—and urgently." The public can comment on the recommendation by the panel, appointed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, through Oct. 17 before it receives the final green light. (More anxiety stories.)