Anxiety afflicts about a quarter of US men and 40% of women at some point in their lives, a panel of experts noted in recommendations published on Tuesday.
The ailment spiked worldwide, along with depression, during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a World Health Organization analysis. Yet primary-care providers often fail to recognise anxiety, and it can go untreated for decades, the experts say.
“Undoubtedly, screening for the mental health topics that we’re releasing now is of extraordinary public health importance,” said Michael Silverstein, a health professor at Brown University and the vice chair of the panel that made the recommendation. “So I think the Covid-19 pandemic just laid bare how important this was.”
The recommendation for primary-care providers from the US Preventive Services Task Force, published in the JAMA medical journal on Tuesday, focuses on adults younger than 65 who come to health providers for reasons other than anxiety. Pregnant and postpartum patients are at especially high risk of anxiety and should be targeted for screening, according to the recommendations.
Anxiety encompasses a range of conditions from panic disorder to social anxiety. Doctors screen for them by asking patients about symptoms such as nervousness and worry.
Children ages eight to 18 should also be screened for anxiety, according to the task force. It recommends screening for depression in adults and adolescents.
Systemic barriers prevent some people from getting care for anxiety, the panel noted. For example, black people and members of other minority groups may have less access to mental health services due to disparities in wealth.
The panel’s recommendations are a “call to action” to address these inequities, Silverstein said. “Screening is really the first step.”
The task force is made up of volunteer experts in primary care and preventive medicine. It’s authorised by Congress and members are appointed by the director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a government body, though the panel works independently.