How Do You Treat Anxiety? Only 20% Of Young People Stay Well After Being Treated Once, According To A New Study

As one of approximately 40 million American adults living with anxiety, I like to say I have a brain that never turns off. My health anxiety is an almost constant spiral, an even slightly negative occurrence can send me into a full-blown panic where I obsess over the worst possible outcomes, and, like many people with anxiety, I sought treatment after noticing anxiety was negatively impacting my life. Traditional treatments for anxiety involve therapy and medication, but unfortunately, a newly published study has shown that only 20 percent of people with anxiety will stay well over the long term after being treated once, according to a new study.

The study, which was published May 31 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, followed 319 people between the ages of 10 and 25. Each of the 319 participants were diagnosed with separation, social, or general anxiety disorder, according to the study report. The participants "received evidence-based treatment with either sertraline (the generic form of Zoloft) or cognitive behavioral therapy or a combination of these two, and then had follow-ups with the researchers," a press release says.

The purpose of the follow-ups was to take a look at how participants were doing after their one-time treatment. The way the follow-ups were spaced makes this study a pioneer, since "[o]ther studies have done a single follow-up at one, two, five, or 10 years out, but those were essentially snapshots in time," according to the study report. "This is the first study to reassess youth treated for anxiety every year for four years."

But the results of the reassessments are concerning: "No matter which treatment they get, only 20 percent of young people diagnosed with anxiety will stay well over the long term," the study report said. Those 20 percent of participants reported low anxiety at each of their four follow-ups. As for everyone else, researchers found that half of patients relapsed at least once, and that 30 percent were chronically anxious, "meeting the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder at every follow-up," according to the study report.

There was some good news to be found in the results, though. Researchers discovered that participants for whom the treatment worked well were likely to stay well after the conclusion of their treatment. Other findings included the fact that people who are female were more likely to have chronic anxiety than people who are male, and that some predictors of chronic anxiety include "experiencing more negative life events, having poor family communication, and having a diagnosis of social phobia."

Researchers also noted that there appeared to be no difference in long-term outcomes between participants who received treatment via medication and those who received treatment via cognitive behavioral therapy, suggesting that "if there is no cognitive behavioral therapist nearby, treatment with medication is just as likely to be effective," according to the study report.

University of Connecticut Health psychologist Golda Ginsburg said in the study report that, "When you see so few kids stay non-symptomatic after receiving the best treatments we have, that's discouraging." She added that she believes regular mental health checkups could be one of the building blocks of better treatment for people with mental illnesses. "If we can get them well, how do we keep them well?" she said. "We need a different model for mental health, one that includes regular checkups."

Until that better model is developed, there are things parents of anxious kids can do to help them out now, Ginsburg said in the study report. For one, the study showed that kids whose families "were supportive and had positive communication styles" tended to do better. Ginsburg also suggested parents give their children access to therapy, and said parents shouldn't be afraid to ask that therapist questions. She did caution, however, that "a single intervention may not be enough."

For folks who have lived with anxiety or any other mental illness, it's likely not surprising that researchers are finding that treating mental illnesses is a lifelong battle that involves long- and short-term maintenance. But with research like this, there's hope that one day, more than 20 percent of us will get well, and stay well.