Antidepressant Prescriptions Have Doubled In A Decade – Could This Be Why?

From Brexit anxiety to greater awareness of mental health, experts discuss what could be responsible.

Antidepressant prescriptions in England have almost doubled in the last decade, new figures from NHS Digital show, with 70.9 million items being given out in 2018 to treat conditions including depression and anxiety.

It is a big jump up since a decade ago in 2008, when there were 36 million items prescribed. It is also a rise from 67.5 million in 2017 and 64.7 million in 2016.

The figure includes all items dispensed by the NHS in England, except those given out in hospitals or private prescriptions. But what could have caused such an exponential rise? And is it a good thing, or bad?

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The large rise in prescriptions might be indicative of just how common mental illness is, but also greater awareness of symptoms, Lucy Schonegevel, head of health influencing at Rethink Mental Illness, told HuffPost UK.

Some other possible influences include GPs having increased understanding of mental health and being more able to spot symptoms of depression in their patients, a rise in the practice of antidepressant prescribing, or a combination of all these issues, says Vicki Nash, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind.

She called for more resources and training to be made available to GPs to cope with this increase in demand.

Brexit might also have a part to play, Nash added. “We currently live in turbulent times and the impact of Brexit on the nation’s mental health is hard to measure,” she explained.

“We know political and world events can create a great deal of uncertainty, which can make some of us feel anxious, stressed and down.”

An NHS England spokesperson said that while the number of prescriptions has gone up, the cost of prescriptions has gone down by more than £300 million.

The health service admitted it plans to do more to address over-prescribing in the future. “While antidepressants play an important role for some patients, an attitude of ‘a pill for every ill’ can mean not only do some people end up taking medicine they don’t need to, but taxpayer funding is spent on avoidable prescriptions,” they told HuffPost UK.

One way of tackling this, it said, is by rolling out alternatives to medication, like 1,000 social prescribing Link Workers giving people care and advice tailored to their condition.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said “it’s really important that increasing numbers of antidepressant prescriptions are not automatically seen as a bad thing”.

She added that GPs will often take into account the physical, psychological and social factors potentially impacting on their health, as well as clinical guidelines, when formulating a diagnosis and treatment plan.

“No doctor wants their patients to be reliant on medication – and most patients don’t want this, either – so where possible we will consider alternative treatments,” she said, “such as CBT and talking therapies, but unfortunately access to these important services in the community is patchy across the country.”

NHS England’s GP Forward View, which fed into the NHS long-term plan, pledged for every GP practice to have access to one of 3,000 new mental health therapists. Stokes-Lampard said that this is needed urgently.

Ultimately it’s important not to stigmatise antidepressants, as they can save lives. “They have helped tens of thousands of people successfully manage their illnesses,” said Schonegevel, “and we will always advocate their use in cases where it is warranted, along with sufficient information about their side effects, and as part of a wider care plan that takes into account someone’s medical and social needs.”