US task force recommends adults get screened for anxiety at doctor’s office: ‘I really just hope it sheds a light on what people are struggling with’

MADISON, Wis. — After a national panel of experts this week recommended adults younger than 65 get regularly screened for anxiety, doctors say it’s about time because many people could be battling the disorder without even knowing it.

Your doctor checks your heart, lungs, and eyes every visit. Now the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force wants to add your head to the list.  

“Your brain is part of your body, so it turns out that that is actually also physical health,” said Dr. Shanda Wells, a clinical psychologist for the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. 

USPSTF now recommends adults up to 65, regardless of their symptoms, also be screened for anxiety at the doctor’s office.  

“There are things like differences in breathing, gastrointestinal distress, sweatiness, all of those things can be symptoms of anxiety but people may not recognize them as that,” Wells said.  

The USPSTF found people have gone with some of those “somatic” or physiological symptoms for as long as 23 years without knowing they were related to anxiety.

“Anxiety is our most common mental health disorder,” Wells said.

She said cognitive symptoms that could point to anxiety include difficulty concentrating, worrying often or uncontrollably, or often thinking something bad is going to happen.

“I really just hope it sheds a light on what people are struggling with,” she said.

According to Wells, the 10-question screener is available in most doctors’ offices. While it doesn’t tell a patient whether they have general anxiety disorder, panic disorder or social anxiety disorder, it does help them decide what to do next.   

“You can’t really diagnose someone from a screener,” she said. “You have to have an interview with them and talk to them, but it can at least give you a hint as to if someone is experiencing some anxiety symptoms.”

UW Health offers collaborative care, Wells said, so if a patient screens positive for anxiety they can see someone from her team, stationed in every adult primary care office.  

The recommendation this week focuses on adults, but Wells said she has seen more teenagers open up about their mental health possibly due to the conversation being more common on social media.

“I’m always impressed by their ability to be introspective; they do a really great job actually,” she said.

The doctor also added that certain populations are at a higher risk of anxiety and other mental health disorders.   

“Typically the Black community has a higher level of anxiety, and the Native American population,” Wells said, “and anyone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community – so especially those folks should be screened.”  

“That group of folks also has much higher levels of societal inequities, and environment is a huge part of any kind of mental health problem,” she added.

Over the past few years, COVID-19 was a testing factor in everyone’s environment. 

According to the American Psychological Association, rates of anxiety and depression were four times higher from April 2020 to August 2021 than they were in 2019.  

While it reinforced their findings, the USPSTF’S recommendation is actually based on findings gathered before the pandemic.

“I think that’s kind of the shocking part is that we already knew this was happening, right?” Wells said. “Like, this has been happening for many, many years. Anyone who’s in the mental health field is not surprised by this recommendation.” 

While the recommendation may not surprise Wells, it does give her hope.  

“I think that this is another step in that direction but it does seem like there’s been a little more willingness and openness to talk about anxiety,” she said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues or considering suicide, there are resources available to help. Calling 988 nationwide will connect you to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In Dane County, Journey Mental Health Center has a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 608-280-2600.