Despite Increased Demand, Fewer People Started Mental Health Medications Amid COVID-19

While COVID-19 has worsened the nation’s overall behavioral health, it has also interrupted the delivery of behavioral health treatment, a new study suggests. 

The research — published last month in the journal Health Affairs — shows that fewer people started antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications during the first five months of the pandemic. Specifically, new starts for antidepressants were down 7.5% from expected levels, authors of the study noted, with new starts for antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications down 2.6% and 5.6%, respectively.

The study’s authors used IQVIA Longitudinal Prescription Data collected between January 1, 2018 and August 8, 2020 to reach the findings. That data represented 89% of all prescriptions from retail, mail and long-term care pharmacies in the US. 


Researchers combed through the numbers, looking specifically at new prescription starts in 2020. They compared the numbers to those forecasted for the time period. 

They saw the biggest difference between expectations and reality in March and April 2020, when the pandemic first shut down the U.S. But even in the months that followed, the number of new mental health medication starts fell short of both 2019 and forecasted levels. 

Patients younger than age 18 were the most affected by the decline, researchers found. Specifically, new medication starts for that population fell 34.6% short of forecasted numbers for antidepressant, for 22.2% for antipsychotic and 27.3% for anti-anxiety medication.


“Notably, new starts for people older than age 18 were much closer to expected levels during the May [through] August period compared with new starts for those younger than age 18,” the authors of the study noted.

At the same time that medication starts declined, symptoms of anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder became more prevalent across the U.S. Anxiety symptoms increased from about 8% in the second quarter of 2019 to 25.5% in June 2020, the authors of the report noted. Meanwhile, major depressive disorder symptoms jumpted from 6.5% in Q2 2019 to 24.3% in June 2020.

The findings reaffirm what most behavioral health providers already know: There’s a large unmet need for mental health treatment in the U.S., especially amid COVID-19. 

“Our findings suggest that numerous people have forgone or are currently forgoing psychotropic treatment for mental health conditions,” the authors of the study wrote. “Providers and policy makers must work to increase access to treatment for psychiatric disorders, in addition to addressing the underlying causes of poor mental health outcomes during the pandemic.”

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