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Experts advise people who use Zoloft and other antidepressant medications to refill prescriptions early and to stay in contact with their mental health professionals. Getty Images
  • Zoloft and its generic counterparts have been added to the Food and Drug Administration’s list of drugs currently experiencing shortages.
  • Experts say the shortages are linked to a rising demand for antidepressant prescriptions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The increase in prescriptions coincides with surveys showing a rise in anxiety and depression symptoms during the pandemic.
  • Experts advise people to request refills of Zoloft and other medications early and to stay in contact with their mental health professionals.

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Drug shortages of key antidepressant medications are shedding light on an often overlooked side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zoloft and its generic counterparts have been added to the Food and Drug Administration’s list of drugs currently experiencing shortages.

The pandemic has strained supply chains for the manufacture and distribution of a wide range of goods, including pharmaceuticals.

Simultaneously, there have been concerns it is straining the mental health of people around the world, even if their families haven’t been affected by the novel coronavirus.

Shutdowns have limited income, routines, and social circles. Experts add that the virus itself has ramped up feelings of fear and a lack of control.

New data suggest those concerns over increased and more widespread anxiety are real. Shortages of needed drugs, even if temporary, underline a lack of preparation for and attention to the mental health side of this pandemic, experts say.

“I think this is one of these things we should have been well prepared for if we had thought this pandemic could have significant mental health impacts,” Paul Gionfriddo, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America, told Healthline. “We’ve been slow to respond to the mental health side of this.”

Prescriptions for Zoloft, used to treat anxiety and depression since the early 1990s, reached a record high in the United States in March before receding slightly in April.

Many dosages of Zoloft are still available, according to the FDA shortage list. But four are listed as in limited supply, as of Thursday, and two of those cited “demand increase for the drug” as the reason. The other two listed “other.”

Several of the generics — sold under the name sertraline — listed the reason for the shortage as an inability to obtain enough of the active pharmaceutical ingredients to manufacture the drug “due to impacts caused by COVID-19.”

Some of the shortages of those generics in limited supply were expected to last for the next 2 months, according to the FDA list. Others were expected to be on back order for a “few months.”

One of the shortages of dosages of Zoloft in limited supply due to increased demand was expected to end in June. The other was listed as TBD.

The possibility of a shortage for needed drugs could potentially be one more worry in an already stressful time.

In addition, these drugs build up gradually in the body in order to take effect, so if someone ran out, then even a short time without them could stretch out as someone waits for the drugs to begin to take effect again once they’ve restarted their medication.

“When they start it up again, they’ll have to wait for the benefits again. So you leave people with this vulnerable window, if they go without the medications for a couple weeks or a month or two,” Gionfriddo said.

He added there hasn’t been as much attention on shortages of mental health drugs as there has been on medications such as hydroxychloroquine, which is needed by people with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other chronic conditions.

“It’s just as big a deal when people get can’t an antidepressant they need,” Gionfriddo said.

His organization, Mental Health America, has online screening questionnaires that anyone can use to try to assess whether they have anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition.

This week, the organization reported an unprecedented uptick in the numbers of people completing the anxiety and depression questionnaires.

There are four times as many people completing the surveys now than in January and more than twice as many as did in May of last year.

Gionfriddo noted that this May was “by far the biggest month we’ve had in the 6 years” of the online screenings.

The increase does raise concerns.

The percentage of people with moderate to severe anxiety or depression symptoms stayed about the same, possibly indicating that more people currently have those conditions — rather than just that more people are worried they might have the conditions but don’t.

Perhaps most troubling, Gionfriddo noted, is about 10 percent of people who took the screenings reported thinking of suicide or self-harm on more than half the days in the 2 weeks before taking the test.

In a statement, the organization said that fact “suggests a coming wave of mental impacts that could be of epidemic proportions.”

The data is backed by other findings.

U.S. Census Bureau data had found that a third of Americans reported significant signs of anxiety or depression in early May.

For those who are worried about a potential temporary shortage in some forms of medication, Gionfriddo recommends continuing to monitor your symptoms on a daily basis and communicating regularly with a physician.

He also recommends starting the prescription refill process as early as possible, possibly 2 weeks or longer before you’ll run out — while being sure not to hoard medications.

“Start the refill process at the earliest possible date… to give them time to start processing it,” he said.