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Adults should be screened for anxiety disorders, leading health panel recommends


An influential health task force has just issued new recommendations about screening for anxiety problems. The panel of clinicians now says that all adults without anxiety symptoms should be screened for the problem through annual checkups. Here to tell us more about this guidance is NPR health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff.

So who's issuing this guidance?

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: So the recommendation comes from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. It's a panel of clinicians who review research about preventive care and then look to see if there's actual evidence that these services are beneficial for people. Last year, they began recommending that children over age 7 who don't have symptoms of anxiety be screened for the problem at their regular checkups. Now they've extended this recommendation to adults under age 65, regardless of their risk. Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe was part of this panel. He's at New York University. He says the new guidance is backed by really solid evidence.

GBENGA OGEDEGBE: The good news is that for adults without signs or symptoms of anxiety, the evidence is clear that if we screen them, that that screening is beneficial.

DOUCLEFF: That the screening works. It helps to find people who need treatment. And if they do get treatment, they have a better outcome than the people who weren't screened and didn't get treatment.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So say I'm in the doctor's office sitting there. What should I expect to hear?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So typically, this involves a series of questions. You know, maybe your doctor can ask you them during the exam, or they give you a questionnaire that you fill out where you're waiting to see the doctor. And questions for anxiety can be like, in the past two weeks, A, how often have you had trouble relaxing...

MARTÍNEZ: All the time.

DOUCLEFF: ...Trouble sitting still or...

MARTÍNEZ: All the time.

DOUCLEFF: ...Have been easily annoyed or irritable? Yes, they do sound familiar, but it's this idea of, you know, are they reoccurring and kind of don't go away easily? And, you know, during the pandemic, around a third of adults reported symptoms of anxiety each month. But the panel found that primary care doctors often miss anxiety because it can masquerade as other issues. Like, patients may complain about trouble sleeping or chest pain or even shortness of breath. So the hope here is that with questionnaires like this, more people can get diagnosed and get treatment more quickly. And I should note that the task force also recommends screening for depression for all adults, too.

MARTÍNEZ: And just to be clear, even for people without symptoms.

DOUCLEFF: Exactly. This recommendation is for specifically people without symptoms.

MARTÍNEZ: So what if you have signs of anxiety or depression?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. Dr. Ogedegbe says this is really important for anyone with symptoms of anxiety, depression or suicidal ideation. It's imperative that they be linked up with somebody who can formally diagnose them and then provide treatment right away. And here's where these recommendations become a bit controversial because right now in the country, we don't have enough psychologists and therapists and psychiatrists to treat everyone who has anxiety and depression. So screening everyone won't be helpful if a person actually can't find treatment. Doctor Ogedegbe says this is especially a problem for specific groups of people.

OGEDEGBE: We do understand there are barriers to treatment, particularly for Native Americans, multiracial groups, Black and Hispanic populations. And it's very important to increase research in that space so we can remove the barriers.

DOUCLEFF: So right now researchers don't understand what's preventing these groups from getting diagnosed and treatment. And he says this topic needs to be researched urgently.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff.

Thanks a lot.

DOUCLEFF: You're welcome, A.

MARTÍNEZ: And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline - just those three digits, 9-8-8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.

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