The newspaper was reporting on a major study published in the Lancet journal which found they are effective in the treatment of depression and that a million more people a year in the UK should be given access to either drugs or talking therapies for the condition.
The Sun ran the story on its front page under the print headline Pop More Happy Pills.
Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which are working together on the mental health anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, said referring to the drugs as such “does a great deal to trivialise and stigmatise mental health conditions such as depression and reinforces the idea that mental health problems are not taken as seriously as physical health problems.”
The joint statement added: “After all, this same approach would never be taken towards medication for say heart conditions or diabetes.
“We know that already too many people with mental health problems are made to feel ashamed and isolated. Trivialising depression and anti-depressants makes it even harder for those of us facing these issues to speak out and seek support.”
The study, which was led by researchers at the University of Oxford, examined trials involving nearly 120,000 people, including patients taking 21 commonly prescribed anti-depressants. The research found all the drugs were more effective than a placebo.
Online reaction to the Sun’s headline has also been critical. Journalist Nicola Furbisher tweeted: “Here we go again. Know I’m shouting into the void but please, quit with the ‘happy pills’.
“I know it makes your headline fit, but it’s so damned misleading and irresponsible. Anti-depressants do not make you ‘happy’, they help you stay alive. Oh, and no-one ‘pops’ them ffs.”
Kirsty Spencer added: “Calling them happy pills is irresponsible. If I didn’t take those ‘happy pills’ for a year and a half would I even be alive right now? Who knows?”
The statement from Mind and Rethink Mental Illness continued: “With suicide still a leading cause of death for certain groups in society, anything that discourages people from seeking help is potentially very dangerous.
“Headlines such as this risk affecting the opinions and behaviours of millions currently struggling, unseen, from depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
“The term ‘happy pills’ also is misleading in terms of what depression actually is. Depression is not simply being unhappy. At its most severe, depression can be life-threatening because it can make you feel suicidal or simply give up the will to live.
“We do not want anyone to be negatively impacted by headlines such as these. We believe that everyone with a mental health problem should have choice into their treatment without feeling ashamed.”
A spokesman for The Sun told HuffPost UK the newspaper stood by the headline, adding: “Putting mental health issues front and centre of Britain’s best-selling newspaper is more likely to encourage people who are unsure whether to seek help than the opposite.”
The Sun has written extensively on the mental health of former servicemen and women and has covered the work of Harry, William and Kate and the Heads Together foundation.
However it has also been criticised in the past for its coverage of mental health, including a page that labelled former boxer Frank Bruno “bonkers” after he was taken to a psychiatric hospital in 2003.
A story describing him as a “nut” ran along the first edition headline ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’, prompting a storm of complaints from readers and mental health charities.
In 2013 the newspaper admitted a front page exclusive headlined 1,200 Killed By Mental Patients “risked stigmatising already vulnerable people”.
Useful websites and helplines
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Rethink Mental Illness, open Monday to Friday, 9am - 5pm 0121 522 7007
Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41.
Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070.