US adults under 65 should receive routine anxiety screening, panel says

An influential health guidelines group says US doctors should regularly screen adults for anxiety

An influential health guidelines group says US doctors should regularly screen adults under 65 for anxiety. AP
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US doctors should regularly screen all adults under 65 for anxiety, an influential health guidelines group proposed.

It's the first time the US Preventive Services Task Force has recommended anxiety screening in primary care for adults without symptoms. The proposal is open for public comment until October 17, but the group usually affirms its draft guidance.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. Mr 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.

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health complaints, affecting about 40 per cent of US women at some point in their lives and more than one in four men, Ms 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 post-partum 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 recognise is that a screening test alone is not sufficient to diagnose anxiety,” Ms 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.

The task force said there isn’t enough solid research in older adults to recommend for or against anxiety screening in those aged 65 and up.

The group continues to recommend depression screening for adults and children, but said there isn’t enough evidence to evaluate potential benefits and harms of suicide screening in adults who show no worrisome symptoms.

In April, the group issued similar draft guidance for children and teenagers, recommending anxiety screening but stating that more research is needed on potential benefits and harms of suicide screening kids with no obvious signs.

Guidelines from the task force often determine insurance coverage, but anxiety is already on the radar of many primary care doctors. In 2020, a group affiliated with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended routine primary care anxiety screening for women and girls starting at age 13.

Melissa Lewis-Duarte, a wellness coach in Scottsdale, Arizona, says rhythmic breathing, meditation and making a daily list of three things for which she is grateful have all helped with her anxiety.

“Doctors say, ‘Make sure you’re sleeping, control your stress.’ Yeah, I get that,” but not everyone knows how, said the 42-year-old mother of three. “It’s difficult to prioritise self-care, but that’s what’s necessary.”

Updated: September 21, 2022, 11:51 PM
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