The number of antidepressants prescribed in England rose after the EU referendum by more than 13% compared with other drugs, a new study suggests.
The spike in drugs like Prozac might have been prompted by increased uncertainty in the wake of the vote, according to researchers at the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
They said their findings suggested mental health service provision may need to be strengthened during periods of national uncertainty and anxiety.
Evidence already exists that major societal events like a terror incident can affect a nation’s mental health and the researchers wanted to find out if the vote for Brexit might have had a similar impact.
So they compared official monthly prescribing data for more than 30 branded antidepressants, like Prozac, for all 326 voting areas in England with other classes of drugs for conditions less likely to be immediately affected by changes in mood.
These included drugs to treat anaemia, gout, diabetes, thyroid problems, drugs to lower blood glucose and blood fats, and muscle relaxants.
The researchers looked at prescribing patterns specifically for the month of July for every year between 2011-16, to capture the immediate aftermath of the referendum result the previous month.
To ensure they could compare the different types of drugs, they calculated a ‘defined daily dose’ (DDD) reached by multiplying the number of milligrams prescribed by the strength of each pill.
One of the report’s authors, Dr Sotiris Vandoros, of King’s College London, told HuffPost UK analysis of the data showed that before the referendum, DDDs for antidepressants rose during the month of July year on year, as did prescribing for insulins and gout, iron deficiency anaemia, and blood fat and glucose drugs.
“But in the month after the referendum, DDDs for antidepressants continued to rise, albeit at a slower pace, but those for the other drugs fell, having experienced a period of growth,” he said.
The only exception were prescriptions for muscle relaxants, which had already been in decline.
The researchers calculated that after the referendum the volume of antidepressants prescribed increased by 13.4% relative to the other classes of drugs studied.
Dr Vandoros said: “This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause.
“Antidepressants aren’t prescribed to everyone, so the results can’t be taken to mean that the mood worsened across the whole of England, nor can they rule out that mood actually improved for some people.
“A lot of people no doubt were over the moon about Brexit, but this study only concentrated on people on antidepressants and it isn’t a comparison of the average mood in the UK at the time of the decision to leave the EU.”
He added: “Overall, while our findings point towards a relative increase in antidepressant prescribing, results should be interpreted with caution, and further research is needed to examine whether there is any short-term relationship between the referendum result and mental health.”
The report’s authors concluded: “Our study focused on an event that was unexpected, leading to an immediate shock.
“From a more general perspective, this paper shows that shocks nationally can affect health, and that uncertainty about, and expectations of, future effects can have an impact on health in the short term.”