This September, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—an independent panel of primary care experts—released a draft of new guidance that all patients under 65 be screened for anxiety. Back in April, the group made the same draft recommendation for children eight and up.
USPSTF usually sets guidelines for routine preventative care and cancer screenings. Think mammograms, colonoscopies, and pap smears. These two recommendations, if finalized, would add to the task force's growing category of mental health screenings and would be the broadest in scope.
According to woefully out-of-date statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (the most recent published data is from 2001–2003), some 19 percent of adults in the U.S. had an anxiety disorder in the last year, with 31 percent experiencing it at some point in their lives. And given the doozy of a decade that's passed since those stats were recorded (hello, pandemic), it's safe to assume those numbers are far higher now.
The tricky thing about anxiety is that it's often not easy to identify, notes Dr. Heidi Combs, medical director of inpatient psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center, in a 2018 UW Medicine video. "It's very common for people to not believe that what they're experiencing is anxiety," she says. "If you go to any emergency room across the country, there will be people who come in every day having panic attacks that are convinced that they're having a heart attack."
Aside from a major event like a panic attack, an anxiety disorder manifests in other physical ways: fatigue, sleep issues, low energy. In fact, Combs notes, anxiety is "one of the most common reasons that people go to their primary care provider." The good news, though, is that the condition is often treatable with medications, therapy, lifestyle changes, or some combination of the three.
"There's easy ways to diagnosis things, but only if you ask the questions," Combs says. Hence the USPSTF's recommendation that primary care physicians incorporate screening questions into regular exams. But that may still take a while.
The USPSTF is accepting public comments until mid-October, when it will incorporate feedback into its final recommendation. That could still take several months and, after that, several more months for clinics and doctors' offices to incorporate the screening questions into routine checkups.