Antidepressant Prescriptions Leap In Wake Of Economic Hardship

Prescriptions for drugs such as antidepressants and sleeping pills have jumped 20% in just three years, according to new figures.

Experts believe the stress of recent years, including the economic turmoil, means more people are experiencing mental health problems.

Data from the NHS Information Centre shows antidepressant use alone rose 28% between 2007/08 and 2010/11 in England.

Just under 34 million prescriptions were dispensed for antidepressants in 2007/08, rising to 43.4 million in 2010/11.

The use of anti-anxiety drugs rose from just over six million to 6.5 million in the same period (an 8% jump), while prescriptions for sleeping pills rose 3% from around 9.9 million to 10.2 million.

Meanwhile, prescriptions for barbiturates, which promote sleep and reduce anxiety, have dropped 51% from just over 22,000 to just under 11,000.

Across all these groups of drugs, there was a 20% rise in prescription items dispensed between 2007/08 and 2010/11.

The cost of the drugs to the NHS fell by 9% in the same period, from £329.9 million to £301.6 million.

Antidepressants alone cost the NHS £264.5 million in 2007/08 and just under £235.4 million in 2010/11.

A breakdown by region reveals the North West had the highest antidepressant use in 2010/11, with 7.2 million prescriptions dispensed.

This was followed by the East of England (just under five million) and the South West (almost 4.7 million).

Yorkshire and the Humber saw 4.8 million antidepressant prescriptions dispensed, while the figure was just under 4.2 million in the West Midlands.

Most sleeping pills were dispensed in the North West (just under 1.7 million) followed by the East of England (1.2 million) and the South West (1.1 million).

Yorkshire and the Humber saw 989,000 sleeping pill prescriptions dispensed, while the figure was just over a million in the West Midlands and London.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said there were several factors that could lead to increased prescription figures.

"The tough economic times may have contributed to more people experiencing depression but improved awareness around mental health problems may also mean more people are seeking help for their problems, with doctors also getting better at spotting symptoms.

"It's important to remember that antidepressants can be a lifeline for some people which enable them to manage their mental health problems.

"It is worrying that antidepressants can be the first port of call for some doctors, despite the fact that 'watchful waiting' and talking therapies are recommended as the first line of treatment for mild to moderate depression."

Mr Farmer said there was a a lack of access to talking treatments, such as counselling, in some parts of the country "which means doctors are left with little choice but to prescribe medication".

He added: "Last year Mind found that one in five people still have to wait over a year to access talking therapies."

The Information Centre figures come as the Co-operative Pharmacy published its own data following a freedom of information request to the Prescription Services Authority.

It found antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug use alone cost the health service over £1 billion in total since the start of the economic downturn in 2007.

The research found that citalopram hydrobromide was the most common anti-depressant medication dispensed (12.1 million items in 2010/11) followed by amitriptyline HCl (8.8 million) and 5.2 million items for fluoxetine (known commonly as Prozac).

Diazepam was the most widely prescribed drug for anxiety (1.5 million items prescribed in 2010/11).

Emer O'Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance, said: "For some people depression just happens, but for others it is triggered by stressful events, for example losing a job, property or bereavement.

"These uncertain economic times are linked to an increase in the number of people with the illness."

Mandeep Mudhar, NHS business director at the Co-operative Pharmacy, said: "It is clear more people are seeking medical help to treat depression and anxiety.

"However, there are many more people who do not share their experiences. If people do feel depressed we urge them to seek medical help."