COVID-19: Striking Uptick in Anxiety, Other Psych Meds

Megan Brooks

April 17, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

UPDATED April 20, 2020. // The psychological, physical, and financial aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are having a significant negative impact on Americans' mental health, new research suggests.

An analysis from pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts shows that the number of weekly prescriptions for antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia medications jumped 21% between February 15 and March 15, peaking during the week ending March 15 when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the United States declared a national emergency.

"More than three quarters (78%) of all antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia prescriptions filled during the week ending March 15 (the peak week) were for new prescriptions, a finding that suggests there has been an actual increase in anxiety, depression, and insomnia among Americans," Glen Stettin, MD, Express Scripts senior vice president and chief innovation officer, told Medscape Medical News.

"Americans have grown increasingly anxious as they've seen this global pandemic upend their lives within a very short time, and that's understandable.

"This analysis shows that many Americans are turning to medications for relief and demonstrates the serious impact COVID-19 may be having on our nation's mental health," Stettin added.

Anxious, Depressed, Sleep Deprived

The biggest increase was for antianxiety medications. Prescriptions rose 34.1% between mid-February and mid-March ― a striking change from a 12.1% decline in use of anxiety medications from 2015 through 2019, according to the report.

During the week ending March 15, the use of drugs to ease anxiety jumped nearly 18%. More women (39.6%) than men (22.7%) sought medication for anxiety during the study period.

In addition, prescriptions for antidepressants rose 18.6%, and prescriptions for insomnia medications rose 14.8% from mid-February to mid-March. The spike in insomnia medications contrasts with an 11.3% decline in their use from 2015 through 2019.

"Prescriptions for these medications started to level off after March 15, possibly because Americans started sheltering in place, though they remained at a higher level than at the start of the year," Stettin told Medscape Medical News.

The data are based on prescription claims for antidepressant, antianxiety, and anti-insomnia medications filled between January 19, 2020, and March 15, 2020, among a sample of more than 31.5 million commercially insured individuals.

"The good news is people are seeking help and care for their mental health during this time and getting [a prescription] if needed. We felt it was important to share these data so people who may be concerned about the way they are feeling right now know that they are not alone," Stettin said.

The data in the report are part of a larger in-depth analysis of Americans' use of mental health medications from 2015 through 2019. Among the statistics cited in the report:

  • Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting 40 million adults every year.

  • Nearly 17.3 million American adults experienced a major depressive disorder in 2017.

  • Antidepressant use increased 15% from 2015 to 2019, with adolescents experiencing the greatest increase (38.3%).

  • 50 to 70 million people in the United States suffer from a sleep disorder.

  • Three quarters of Americans believe mental health is just as important as physical health.

  • More than 42% of Americans cite cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barriers for accessing mental health care.

  • Roughly 111 million Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health professionals.

Express Scripts. America's State of Mind. Published April 16, 2020. Full text

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