A new study of anxiety disorders among young adults aged 18-24 shows that the illnesses are less prevalent among African American and Hispanic young adults, compared with whites. Furthermore, anxiety disorders are 1.5 times as prevalent among married people in this age group, compared with their unmarried peers.

For their research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Cristiane S. Duarte, PhD, MPH, of Columbia University, New York, and her colleagues looked at data from the 2012/2013 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions ( NESARC ), a nationally representative sample of U.S. households.

“We were trying to look specifically at young adulthood, which there’s emerging consensus to regard as a key developmental period,” said Dr. Duarte , whose research focuses on anxiety disorders in young adults. “It’s a period where several psychiatric disorders tend to become much more prevalent. Having untreated anxiety disorders at this age can put young adults at risk for worse outcomes down the line. If anxiety disorders can be resolved, a young adult’s trajectory can be quite different; it’s a time in life in which the right intervention can have a really big impact,” she said.

The NESARC III survey data used structured diagnostic interviews and DSM-5 criteria to assess anxiety disorders occurring in the past year. These included specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. 

For the most part, Dr. Duarte said, her group’s findings on anxiety disorders reflected earlier prevalence studies that had used DSM-IV criteria. Women were more likely than were men to report any past-year anxiety disorder (odds ratio, 2.26; 95% confidence interval, 1.80-2.84), as were people with lower personal and family incomes. Rates of anxiety disorders were highest in groups with the lowest personal and family incomes, and among people neither employed nor in an educational program.

Dr. Duarte said in an interview that the latter findings were generally anticipated. However, the finding that African Americans and Hispanics at this age had lower risk relative to whites (OR, 0.52; 95% CI, 0.40-0.67) and (OR, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.49-0.83) was interesting, because it appeared to mirror the lower relative prevalence seen among adults in those two groups, rather than the higher prevalence seen among children in the same groups. More research will be needed, she said, to verify and, if correct, understand this reversing trend in prevalence seen between childhood and adulthood.

The study’s most unexpected finding, Dr. Duarte said, was that married individuals aged 18-24 had higher prevalence of anxiety (OR, 1.54; 95% CI, 1.05-2.26). “Across the board, marriage is protective for many health and mental health conditions,” Dr. Duarte said, but she acknowledged that many factors could be in play. Marriage might not, in fact, be protective in this age group; the institution might be reflective of cultural factors promoting early marriage; or the findings could reflect a selection into marriage possibly related to existing anxiety disorders.

“To better understand this finding, we will need to consider several complexities which are part of young adulthood as a unique developmental period,” she said.

Dr. Duarte’s and her colleagues’ study was funded by the Youth Anxiety Center at New York–Presbyterian Hospital. Three coauthors reported research support from pharmaceutical manufacturers and royalties from commercial publishers.