U.S. doctors should regularly screen all adults under 65 for anxiety, an influential health guidelines group proposed Tuesday.
It’s the first time the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended anxiety screening in primary care for adults without symptoms. The proposal is open for public comment until Oct. 17, but the group usually affirms its draft guidance.
The recommendations are based on a review that began before the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluating studies showing potential benefits and risks from screening. Given reports of a surge in mental health problems linked with pandemic isolation and stress, the guidance is “very timely,” said Lori Pbert, a task force member and co-author. Pbert is a psychologist-researcher at the University of Massachusetts’ Chan Medical School.
The task force said evidence for benefits, including effective treatments, outweighs any risks, which include inaccurate screening results that could lead to unnecessary follow-up care.
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Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health complaints, affecting about 40% of U.S. women at some point in their lives and more than 1 in 4 men, Pbert noted.
Black people, those living in poverty, people who have lost partners and those who have other mental health issues are among adults who face higher risks for developing anxiety, which can manifest as panic attacks, phobias or feeling always on edge. Also, about 1 in 10 pregnant and postpartum women experience anxiety.
Common screening tools include brief questionnaires about symptoms such as fears and worries that interfere with usual activities. These can easily be given in a primary care setting, the task force said, although it didn’t specify how often patients should be screened.
“The most important thing to recognize is that a screening test alone is not sufficient to diagnose anxiety,” Pbert said. The next step is a more thorough evaluation by a mental health professional, though Pbert acknowledged that finding mental health care can be difficult given shortages of specialists.
Megan Whalen, a 31-year-old marketing specialist who was diagnosed with anxiety in 2013, says regular doctors should screen for mental health issues as commonly as they do for physical problems.
“Health is health, whether the problem is visible or not,” said Whalen, of Hoboken, New Jersey.
She has gotten help from medicine and talk therapy, but her symptoms worsened during the pandemic and she temporarily moved back home.
“The pandemic made me afraid to leave home, my anxiety telling me anywhere outside of …read more