Over two million individuals in England, approximately a quarter of all patients on antidepressants, have been on these medications for five years or more, a recent investigation by the BBC reveals.
This usage trend persists despite scant evidence supporting the efficacy of these drugs over such extended periods.
NHS health professionals note that withdrawal symptoms can create a significant barrier for patients attempting to cease their medication use. Although withdrawal guidelines were revised in 2019, not much has changed in practice.
Prescriptions for antidepressants, used in the treatment of conditions like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, have risen in England. Over eight million people currently use these drugs, marking an increase of a million users in the past five years, according to NHS prescription data.
The long-term use data, covering 2018-2022, was obtained by BBC Panorama through a Freedom of Information request to the NHS. While this information offers a broad overview, it does not detail individual patient circumstances, with some potentially having valid reasons for prolonged antidepressant use.
Furthermore, the investigation revealed that a prominent pharmaceutical company tried to hide the potential withdrawal effects of one of its drugs nearly three decades ago.
“Throughout my long and extensive career, I have seen people benefit from antidepressants,” said Professor Wendy Burn, the former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “I see them working in my clinical practice, I see lives being changed by them.” However, she conceded, “People are staying on antidepressants longer, and we don’t really have long-term studies that support that.”