Americans Are Taking 34 Percent More Anxiety Meds Since Coronavirus Pandemic Started, Study Says

More Americans are using prescriptions for anti-anxiety and other mental health medications as the country struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between mid-February and mid-March, use of anti-anxiety medications increased by 34.1 percent, according to a report that pharmacy benefit management company Express Scripts released on Thursday. The report found that use of benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications peaked on the week ending March 15, spiking by almost 18 percent.

"It's hard to imagine we don't have a lot of our fellow Americans under incredible stress right now, either from getting sick or being afraid of being sick or losing their jobs," Dr. Glen Stettin, Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at Express Scripts, told Newsweek.

"It's a stressful time and you can see it in the kinds of medications that have been increasing in terms of the use of medication," he added.

Express Scripts administers prescription drug benefits for millions of Americans who receive insurance through their employers. The report was based on a sampling of over 21 million people.

Data was gathered as part of a five-year study analyzing mental health prescriptions the company had processed. Until the pandemic hit, many of the drugs had seen a decrease in use. Anxiety prescriptions fell 12.1 percent and insomnia medication dropped 11.3 percent over the last five years, although antidepressant use had increased by 15 percent over the same time period.

When the health crisis worsened in the U.S., use of medications for anxiety, depression and insomnia combined rose by 21 percent.

"We were doing our five-year update to look at what was happening with the utilization of these medicines," Stettin said. "Antidepressant use continued to increase but the anxiety and insomnia medication declined. All of a sudden, when the pandemic got declared, the use of the drugs combined increased by over 20 percent."

Anxiety is the most common type of mental illnesses in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, with over 40 million adults suffering from some form of disorder. Although medication can be an effective treatment, some of the drugs used can come with serious side effects and a potential for abuse and addiction. Insomnia drugs share many of the same caveats.

Stettin insisted that a majority of people experiencing anxiety or insomnia issues during the pandemic should first seek drug-free treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or practicing good sleep.

"If you think about anxiety and you think about sleep issues, for most people medicine is not the answer," said Stettin. "Its not that there aren't people with major anxiety disorder... people who have a severe issue with anxiety, for those people the medicines can be really helpful."

Stettin said that the company continued to gather data and the mental health prescriptions dropped slightly after March 15, possibly due to people experiencing increased difficulty in visiting their doctors.

The pandemic was declared on March 12, with social distancing guidelines recommended soon after, before much of the country became subject to stay-at-home orders later that month.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Americans experiencing anxiety, depression and insomnia have been increasingly relying on medications. GANNAMARTYSHEVA/Getty