A U.S. advisory group of medical experts recommended all patients under the age of 65 be screened for anxiety for the first time, a major effort that hopes to expand mental health care as the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to climb.
The group, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, released its draft recommendation on Tuesday. The new guidance, which is open for public comment, comes amid a slate of difficulties in America, including the ongoing effects of the pandemic, loss and inflation.
“To address the critical need for supporting the mental health of adults in primary care, the Task Force reviewed the evidence on screening for anxiety, depression, and suicide risk,” Dr. Lori Pbert, a member of the body, said in a statement. “The good news is that screening all adults for depression, including those who are pregnant and postpartum, and screening adults younger than 65 for anxiety can help identify these conditions early so people can be connected to care.”
The panel, comprised of 16 independent volunteer experts, is appointed by a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. Insurance companies are generally required to cover the body’s recommendations as part of the Affordable Care Act, The Wall Street Journal notes.
The task force also recommended that all adults be screened for depression.
The panel said there wasn’t enough data to recommend screening for anxiety in adults older than 65 when it crafted the new guidance.
Doctors generally use questionnaires to survey patients for mental health disorders, The New York Times reports. The task force’s recommendations would call for physicians to respond to reported signs of anxiety or depression and establish more assessments so that patients can get treatment earlier.
Many patients can see a reduction in symptoms of anxiety or depression with screening and follow-up care, the task force said. The Times added that broad standards for mental health screening could also combat bias in medical care and racism that has led to disproportionate levels of misdiagnoses for Black and Hispanic patients.
The body noted that about a quarter of all men experience anxiety disorders in their lifetime and about 40% of all women do (those figures rely on data from 2001 and 2002, however).
More recent reports show rising levels of mental health disorders linked to the pandemic. One study cited by the panel said 36.4% of adults reported anxiety or depression disorders in August 2020, but that figure rose to 41.5% by February 2021.
The task force also recommended in April that all children should be screened for anxiety beginning at age 8.
Reports of anxiety disorders have increased worldwide since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Organization said in March the global prevalence of anxiety and depression had risen 25% in the first year of the virus, saying the data was just the “tip of the iceberg” when it came to worldwide mental health.