Americans ages 25 to 44 make nearly half of all visits to psychiatrists, seeking help for depression and anxiety disorders, a government study found.

The study by the National Center for Health Statistics raised a question: why are mental disorders striking so many people in the prime of life?"We don't really know what's happening with that group," center statistician Susan Schappert said Tuesday.

The study found that people in the 25-44 group make more than 9 million of the 18.8 million annual visits to private psychiatrists every year. Yet they don't visit other physicians as often. They account for 27 percent of visits made to all doctors except psychiatrists, compared with 48.2 percent of visits to psychiatrists, the study said.

About 34 percent of people in this age group who consulted psychiatrists were diagnosed with depression, followed by 16 percent who have anxiety disorders and 12 percent who have personality disorders, the study found.

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People ages 45 to 64 accounted for 31.7 percent of all visits to psychiatrists, followed by much smaller numbers of people ages 15 to 25, over 65 and children.

The results prompted officials to urge better insurance coverage and access to mental-health care.

"With health reform, early diagnosis and treatment should be available to protect not only our physical well-being, but our mental health as well," said Dr. Philip Lee, assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Mental-health coverage has been a controversial element of pending health-care reform. President Clinton included some benefits in his reform package, but the plan generated furious debate, and employers asked the White House to delete the measure because it would be too expensive.

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