Panel suggests that adults should get routine screening for anxiety

An influential group of medical experts is, for the first time, recommending that adults under age 65 get routinely screened for anxiety.

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The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts who develop recommendations for clinical preventive services, issued the call for primary health care clinicians to make screening for signs of anxiety part of a routine appointment.

Health care providers should use questionnaires and other screening tools to look for symptoms of anxiety in their patients, the task force recommended. The draft guidance is aimed at young and middle-aged adults, and pregnant and post-partum women.

The guidance, which was being prepared prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was intended to identify and treat mental health disorders before they go undetected and untreated for years, the task force said.

The group made a similar recommendation for children and teenagers earlier this year.

The panel is appointed by an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Lori Pbert, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, said the guidance comes at a critical time as people deal with stressors such as rising prices and fear of illness and loss of loved ones from COVID-19. Pbert is a member of the task force.

The guidance comes as Americans are coping with the aftermath of the pandemic.

“COVID has taken a tremendous toll on the mental health of Americans,” Pbert told The Washington Post. “This is a topic prioritized for its public health importance, but clearly there’s an increased focus on mental health in this country over the past few years.”

According to a study cited by the group in its recommendation, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder increased to 41.5% from 36.4% between August 2020 and February 2021.

The task force has a strong influence on how medicine is practiced in the United States, though its recommendations are just that — recommendations and not mandates.

The recommendations on anxiety screening are leading some in the mental health field to question what happens after the screening. According to Dr. Jeffrey Staab, a psychiatrist and chair of the department of psychiatry and psychology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, at a time when the country is “short on mental health resources on all levels — psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists — that’s a real concern.”

“We can screen lots of people, but if that’s all that happens, it’s a waste of time,” Staab told the Times.

In the recommendations, the task force acknowledged that getting help for those with anxiety issues is difficult when fewer than “half of individuals who experience a mental illness will receive mental health care.”

“Our hope is that this set of recommendations can bring awareness of the need to create greater access to mental health care throughout the country,” Pbert said.

A study published in the Lancet last year found that the pandemic led to an additional 53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder across the world.

The proposed recommendations are open for public comment through Oct. 17, after which the task force will consider them for final approval.

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