Experts call for UK government to reverse rate of antidepressant prescriptions

06 December 2023

A group of medical professionals and researchers is calling for the UK government to commit to a reversal in the rate of prescribing of antidepressants, among them a leading academic from London South Bank University (LSBU). 

In a letter published on Tuesday (December 5) in the BMJ, LSBU’s Professor of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health, Marcantonio Spada, is one of those arguing that prescription drugs, and in particular antidepressants, are being overused, with detrimental effects.

More than eight million adults in England are prescribed antidepressants annually, that’s nearly one in five adults, with prescriptions set to rise over the next decade.

The drugs are prescribed for depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and other conditions. 

NHS figures also show that the average length of time a person spends on antidepressants has doubled between the mid-2000s and 2017, with around half of patients now classed as long-term users.

“We are very concerned because rising long-term use of antidepressants is associated with many adverse effects, including increased weight gain, poorer long-term outcomes for some, sexual dysfunction, bleeding and falls,” Professor Spada said. “Also, withdrawal effects are experienced by around half of patients, with up to half describing their symptoms as severe, and many experiencing withdrawal for many months or longer.”

The letter argues that rising antidepressant use is not associated with an improvement in mental health outcomes at the population level.  In fact, according to some measures, mental health outcomes have worsened as antidepressant prescribing has risen. 

“There’s a lot of evidence that antidepressants have no clinically meaningful benefit beyond placebo for all but the most severely depressed patients.” Professor Spada added.  “Despite this, rates of prescribing to patients with mild and moderate depression remains worryingly high.”

To cut the rate of antidepressant prescriptions, the letter’s authors recommend stopping their prescription for mild conditions for new patients. 

The letter’s authors also include Professor Sam Everington, Vice President of the British Medical Association, Conservative MP Danny Kruger, and Dr Andrew Tresidder, clinical lead for medicines management at NHS Somerset.