Millions of Britons may be addicted to antidepressants after taking them for five years or more, official figures suggest.
More than eight million patients in England are prescribed the drugs to help with depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.
But one in four of those – some two million – have been using them for at least half a decade, according to data from the NHS.
This is despite there being limited evidence of the benefits of taking it for so long.
A doctor who runs an NHS clinic to help patients come off the pill says withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult for some to stop.
Millions of Britons may be addicted to antidepressants after taking them for five years or more, official figures suggest
Withdrawal guidelines were updated in 2019, but he says little has changed.
The alarming figures, which also show that the number of people taking antidepressants in England has risen by one million over the past five years, were provided to BBC Panorama under Freedom of Information laws.
The data, for the period 2018 to 2022, provides a general picture of antidepressant use, but does not reflect the circumstances of individual patients — some of whom might be taking them long-term for good reason.
The program also uncovered evidence that a pharmaceutical company tried 27 years ago to hide potential withdrawal symptoms that one drug could cause.
Modern antidepressants known as Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, were heralded as wonder drugs when they were first developed in the 1980s.
They were thought to treat depression by restoring an imbalance of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain.
But researchers now believe they can simply change the way users think or feel rather than fix an underlying problem.
There is also some evidence that long-term use of antidepressants may be associated with certain health risks, such as heart problems and diabetes.
Dr. Mark Horowitz, who in 2015 tried to stop taking the antidepressants he had taken for 15 years, said the pills wreaked “complete havoc” on his life.
He is now helping around 25 patients at England’s only antidepressant-depressant clinic in England – a pilot project set up in London in 2021 to help people who are struggling to stop taking their medication.
Young adults, often leaving home for the first time and starting their careers, also saw antidepressant prescriptions rise by about 40 percent
Dr. Horowitz said, “I woke up in the morning in a complete panic, as if I was being chased by an animal.” The panic he felt would last late into the night and he took to running to distract himself.
“I ran until my feet bled because it gave me a little reprieve from that panic sensation.”
Guidelines for doctors now recommend that people reduce the dose of their medication incrementally, but it does not specify how long this should take.
Dr. Horowitz said he is concerned that much more work has been done to get patients started on antidepressants — and much less to stop.
“To me it’s like allowing cars to be sold without brakes,” he added. “We need to know how to start and stop the car.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists published updated information on withdrawal in 2019, overseen by Professor Wendy Burn, who was the president at the time.
Until then, NHS and College guidelines stated that withdrawal was usually mild and short-lived – no longer than about a week.
Now NHS guidance recognizes that it can be serious and long-lasting for some, and withdrawal can last for many months.
Panorama discovered evidence suggesting that a major pharmaceutical company that produced SSRI antidepressants had become aware of a range of withdrawal symptoms from the mid-1990s, but was hesitant to share this information with the public and drug regulatory authorities. medicines.
The latest NHS data shows that prescribing of antidepressants among teenagers rose by a quarter in England in 2020 compared to 2016. The biggest growth was seen in 13 and 19 year olds, where prescription rates rose by around a third
A copy of a 1996 confidential memo from the company Pfizer, which originally sold sertraline, now the most widely used antidepressant in the UK, shows employees discussing what the pharmaceutical company would tell regulators in Norway.
“We should not voluntarily describe the withdrawal symptoms, but draw up an agreed list in case they are on it,” the memo reads.
Some of the withdrawal symptoms referred to in the memo include sensory disturbances, sweating, nausea, insomnia, tremors, agitation, and anxiety.
Pfizer no longer produces sertraline.
Responding to Panorama’s findings, a spokesperson said the company has “checked and reported all adverse event data” to licensing authorities, “in accordance with its legal and regulatory obligations and has updated sertraline labeling as necessary.”
It added: ‘Public health organizations and professional medical agencies around the world have recognized sertraline and other SSRIs as the treatment of choice for depression in adults.’
The company said the drug’s label warned of withdrawal and had been updated “as required.”
The Royal College of GPs told Panorama GPs are “highly trained to have frank and sensitive conversations” with patients about the risks and benefits of antidepressants.
The companies behind the most widely used antidepressants said that many clinical trials and studies have shown that their drugs are safe and effective, that they are used by millions of people around the world, and that potential side effects are clearly stated in leaflets.