From the WebMD Archives

April 17, 2020 - The number of prescriptions filled for anti-anxiety drugs spiked 34% and orders for anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications also increased from mid-February to mid-March and peaked around March 15, according to a new report released Thursday.

The increase “demonstrates the serious impact COVID-19 may be having on our nation’s mental health,” according to the report by Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit manager owned by Cigna. The data is based on Express Scripts customers with employer-funded insurance.

Anti-anxiety medications had the largest jump, with the number of filled prescriptions increasing 34% from Feb. 16 to March 15. Anti-depressants increased about 19%, and anti-insomnia orders increased nearly 15%. The peak coincides with the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic for the novel coronavirus on March 11 and the U.S. beginning to issue stay-at-home orders, according to a CNN story about the new report.

Before now, the use of these drugs had declined during the past 5 years, according to the report. The use of anti-anxiety medications — including drugs such as Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Valium — was down 12% between 2015 to 2019, and anti-insomnia medication use was down 11%.

During that period, however, the use of anti-depressants increased among U.S. teens, the report said. Anti-depressant use increased 15% among Americans overall and 38% among those between ages 13-19. About twice as many girls than boys took anti-depressants in 2019.

“While the recent increased use of medications to treat anxiety, depression and sleep disorders is sudden, it is encouraging to see our members recognizing the need for help and seeking support from their physician,” the report stated.

Mental health professionals are beginning to speak up about the need for digital tools and support groups to help people cope during and after the COVID-19 outbreak. Several health professionals wrote an editorial in JAMA Internal Medicine last week about the “inevitability of loneliness” due to physical and social distancing and ways to help.

“The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to contain it, represent a unique threat, and we must recognize the pandemic that will quickly follow it—that of mental and behavioral illness—and implement the steps needed to mitigate it,” the authors wrote.