By Joe Harker
"A nation hooked on happy pills" screams Friday's Daily Mail headline, reporting that the dosage of antidepressants prescribed is now triple what it was 15 years ago. They also report the UK takes twice as many pills as France or Italy and quote experts who say that people are looking for a quick fix. The UK's rate of consumption for antidepressants is 94.2 per 1000 people, up from 37.6 at the turn of the millennium.
However, part of this can be put down to increased patient awareness and an increased willingness to ask for medical help. Professor Carmine Pariante of King's College London believes that the increased usage of antidepressants can be seen as both good and bad depending on the reason why a person would take them. He said: "People are asking for anti-depressants in situations where perhaps a few years ago they would just wait.
"There are people receiving anti-depressants who ten years ago would not have asked for help and these are medications that can turn their lives around, so it's good that more of them are being used. But there's also more people asking for anti-depressants as a quick fix because either they're not used to feeling sad or less able to tolerate it, or we don't have the resources or social support to get through difficult times."
Over prescribing medication, or prescribing it when a patient would be better off with a different course of treatment could lead to problems. The Royal College of Psychiatry believes that antidepressants are not addictive because you do not have to increase your dosage to receive the same effect and because cravings do not develop after a patient stops taking the drug. However, their own survey found that 63 per cent of people had withdrawal symptoms when they stopped taking the drugs.
Professor Peter Gøtzsche of the Nordic Cochrane argues that half of people who take antidepressants become addicted. He suggests that doctors can mistake withdrawal symptoms for the return of depression, leading them to put the patient back on a course of antidepressants and potentially taking them indefinitely.
Writing in The Independent, Rachel Whitehead suggests that the language being used to talk about medication for mental health is demonising what is an important part of treatment for some people. The use of words such as "hooked" to describe someone taking their prescribed medication is giving the wrong impression and is the wrong way to look at an increase in prescriptions. She wrote: "Take a look at almost any media coverage about antidepressants or antipsychotics and you'll often find this kind of language creeping in.
"The language used in the media around this is very telling. There is a clear dividing line between those who simply 'take' medication, such as people with diabetes, and those who are 'hooked' on it - people with mental health problems."