Two million Brits may be hooked on antidepressants after taking them for at least half a decade
- More than eight million patients in England prescribed the drugs, figures show
Millions of Britons may be hooked on antidepressants after taking them for five years or more, official figures suggest.
More than eight million patients in England are prescribed the drugs to help with the likes of depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
But one in four of those – some two million – have been on them for at least half a decade, according to NHS data.
This is despite there being limited evidence of the benefits of taking them for this long.
A doctor who runs an NHS clinic helping patients off the pills says withdrawal symptoms can make it hard for some to stop.
Millions of Britons may be hooked on antidepressants after taking them for five years or more, official figures suggest
Withdrawal guidance was updated in 2019 but he says little has changed.
The alarming figures, which also show the number of people taking antidepressants in England has increased by one million over the past five years, were provided to BBC Panorama under Freedom of Information laws.
The data, for the period 2018 to 2022, gives an overall picture of antidepressant use but does not reflect the circumstances of individual patients – some of whom could be taking them long-term for good reason.
The programme also uncovered evidence that a pharmaceutical firm attempted 27 years ago to conceal possible withdrawal effects that one drug could cause.
Modern antidepressants, known as Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, were heralded as wonder drugs when they were first developed in the 1980s.
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They were thought to treat depression by fixing an imbalance of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain.
But researchers now believe they may simply change how users think or feel rather than rectify an underlying problem.
There is also some evidence to suggest that long-term antidepressant use may be linked to some health risks, such as heart problems and diabetes.
Dr Mark Horowitz, who tried to stop the antidepressants he had taken for 15 years in 2015, said the pills caused ‘complete havoc’ in his life.
He now helps around 25 patients at England’s only NHS antidepressant de-prescribing clinic – a pilot scheme set up in London in 2021 to help people struggling to stop taking their medication.
Young adults, who are often leaving home for the first time and starting their careers also saw antidepressant prescription rates boom by about 40 per cent
Dr Horowitz said: ‘I would wake up in the morning in full panic, like I was being chased by an animal.’ The panic he felt would last until late into the evenings and he took up running as a distraction.
‘I ran until my feet bled, because it gave me a slight reprieve from that panic sensation.’
Guidance for doctors now recommends that people reduce the dose of their medication in stages, but it does not specify how long it should take.
Dr Horowitz said he is concerned that far more work has been done on how to start patients on antidepressants – and much less on stopping.
‘To me, it’s the same as allowing cars to be sold without brakes,’ he added. ‘We should know how to start the car and how to stop it.’
The Royal College of Psychiatrists published updated information on withdrawal in 2019, which was overseen by Professor Wendy Burn, who was its president at the time.
Until then, guidance used by the NHS and the College stated withdrawal was mostly mild and short-lived – lasting no more than about a week.
Now NHS guidance acknowledges that it can be severe and longer-lasting for some, and withdrawal can last many months.
Panorama uncovered evidence to suggest that one major drug company which manufactured SSRI antidepressants had become aware of a range of withdrawal symptoms from the mid-1990s, but was reluctant to share this information with the public and medicine regulators.
Latest NHS data shows prescriptions for antidepressants among teens have risen by a quarter in England in 2020 compared to 2016. The greatest growth was seen among 13 and 19-year-olds where prescription rates rose by about a third
A copy of a confidential 1996 memo from firm Pfizer, which originally sold sertraline, now the UK’s most common antidepressant, shows employees discussing what the drug company would tell regulators in Norway.
‘We should not volunteer to describe the withdrawal symptoms, but have an agreed list prepared in case they insist,’ the memo says.
Some of the withdrawal reactions the memo refers to include sensory disturbances, sweating, nausea, insomnia, tremors, agitation and anxiety.
Pfizer no longer produces sertraline.
Responding to Panorama’s findings, a spokesman said the company ‘monitored and reported all adverse event data’ to licensing authorities, ‘in line with its legal and regulatory obligations and updated sertraline labelling as required’.
It added: ‘Public health organisations and professional medical bodies throughout the world have recognised sertraline and other SSRIs as the treatment of choice for adult depression.’
The company said the drug’s label warned about withdrawal and had been updated ‘as required’.
The Royal College of GPs told Panorama that family doctors were ‘highly-trained to have frank and sensitive conversations’ with patients about the risks and benefits of antidepressants.
The companies behind the most widely used antidepressants said many clinical trials and studies have shown their drugs to be safe and effective, they have been taken by millions of people worldwide and potential side effects are clearly stated in leaflets.
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