Turbulent economy triggering stress-related drugs explosion

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THE economic turmoil may have triggered an explosion in the use of stress-related drugs.

New figures released by the NHS Information Centre shows that prescriptions for anti-depressants and sleeping pills have increased by 20 per cent in England over just three years.

Experts believe the stress of recent years, including the impact of the economic gloom, means that more people are experiencing mental health problems, and residents in Yorkshire and the Humber appear to be among the worst affected.

A total of 4.8 million anti-depressant prescriptions were dispensed in the region in 2010/11, a figure behind only the North West (7.2 million) and the East of England (just under five million), among the English regions.

Most sleeping pills were dispensed in the North West, just under 1.7 million, while in Yorkshire and the Humber the figure was 989,000.

The data revealed that anti-depressant use alone rose by 28 per cent in England between 2007/08 and 2010/11, from 34 million prescriptions to 43.4 million over the period.

The use of anti-anxiety drugs increased from just over six million to 6.5 million in the same period, up eight per cent, while prescriptions for sleeping pills rose three per cent, from around 9.9 million to 10.2 million. However, prescriptions for barbiturates, which promote sleep and reduce anxiety, dropped by 51 per cent from just over 22,000 to just under 11,000.

There was a 20 per cent rise in prescription items dispensed across all these groups of drugs between 2007/08 and 2010/11.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said that there were several factors that could lead to increased prescription figures.

“The tough economic times may have contributed to more people experiencing depression.

“But improved awareness around mental health problems may also mean more people are seeking help for their problems, with doctors also getting better at spotting symptoms,” he said. “It’s important to remember that anti-depressants can be a lifeline for some people which enable them to manage their mental health problems.

“It is worrying that anti-depressants can be the first port of call for some doctors, despite the fact that ‘watchful waiting’ and talking therapies are recommended as the first line of treatment for mild to moderate depression.”

Mr Farmer said that there was a lack of access to talking treatments, such as counselling, in some parts of the country “which means that doctors are left with little choice but to prescribe medication”.

He added: “Last year Mind found that one in five people still have to wait over a year to access talking therapies.” The cost of the drugs to the NHS fell by nine per cent over the three years to £301.6m.

The figures came as the Co-operative Pharmacy published its own data following a freedom of information request to the Prescription Services Authority.

It found anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug use alone cost the health service over £1bn since the start of the economic downturn in 2007.

The research found that citalopram hydrobromide was the most common anti-depressant medication dispensed, with 12.1 million items in 2010/11, followed by amitriptyline HCl, and fluoxetine, commonly known as Prozac.

Diazepam was the most widely prescribed drug for anxiety, with 1.5 million items prescribed in 2010/11. Emer O’Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance, said: “For some people depression just happens, but for others it is triggered by stressful events, for example losing a job, property or bereavement. These uncertain economic times are linked to an increase in the number of people with the illness.”

Mandeep Mudhar, NHS business director at the Co-operative Pharmacy, added: “It is clear more people are seeking medical help to treat depression and anxiety.

“However, there are many more people who do not share their experiences.

“If people do feel depressed we urge them to seek medical help.”

simon.bristow@ypn.co.uk