While COVID-19 makes its mark on the world’s health and economy, new research from Express Scripts reveals it is also making a significant impact on mental health. According to the research, the number of prescriptions filled per week for antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications increased 21% between February 16 and March 15, peaking the week ending March 15, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

“Americans have grown increasingly anxious as they’ve seen this global pandemic upend their lives within a very short time. We’re all concerned about our health, our families, and our livelihoods, and are struggling with uncertainty,” says Glen Stettin, MD, senior vice president & chief innovation officer at Express Scripts, in a release. “This analysis, showing that many Americans are turning to medications for relief, demonstrates the serious impact COVID-19 may be having on our nation’s mental health.”

The greatest increase was in prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, which rose 34.1% from mid-February to mid-March, including a week-over-week spike of nearly 18% during the week ending March 15. The number of prescriptions filled for antidepressants and sleep disorders increased 18.6% and 14.8%, respectively, from February 16 to March 15.

The rise in anti-anxiety medications is particularly striking given data from a new Express Scripts research report, America’s State of Mind, which found that until now, the use of anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications had been declining over the past five years. The report, which examines mental health medication trends from 2015 through 2019 among 21 million people with employer-funded insurance, documents a decline in the use of anti-anxiety medications of more than 12% and a similar decline in the use of anti-insomnia medications, down 11.3% during this timeframe.

“While the recent increased use of medications to treat anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders is sudden, it is understandable given the sudden and significant stress being experienced by millions of Americans during this time,” says Stettin. “What’s crucial now is ensuring Americans who are experiencing symptoms of these mental health conditions have support and access to their physicians, therapists, and educational resources, including digital tools and virtual care and counseling, that can help them cope during this time.”

Use of Antidepressants by Adolescents Escalated in the Past Five Years

While use of medications for anxiety and insomnia have declined over the past few years, the report documents that the use of antidepressants, especially among American teenagers, has increased significantly. Overall, there was a 15% increase in the number of people taking antidepressants from 2015 through 2019; and among teens (13-19 years old), the use of these medications jumped 38%, highlighting an alarming need for mental health care services in this age group. This dramatic increase in antidepressant use was seen among both boys and girls, and the ratio use remained relatively constant with twice as many girls (10.2%) than boys (5.7%) in that age group taking an antidepressant in 2019

“While there’s evidence that more teenagers and young adults are suffering with mental health conditions than past generations, they also have adults involved in their lives that help get them access to help and receive needed treatment,” says Stettin.