Fears the recession is affecting the mental health of the nation appear to be borne out by new figures that show prescriptions of antidepressants are soaring.
Last year in England there were 2.1m more prescriptions of antidepressants than in 2007, leading to concerns that doctors are increasingly supplying the drugs as a “quick fix” without attempting to address the underlying cause of the problems. In total, 36m prescriptions were given out, an increase of 24% over the past five years.
“The increase in the number of people being prescribed antidepressants is deeply disturbing,” said the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesman, Norman Lamb, who obtained the figures. “England has become a true Prozac nation.”
Lamb said it appeared the economy was a major factor in the increase. “The figures raise serious concerns over the impact of the current recession on people’s mental health,” he said. “Ministers have acted far too slowly to ensure that support is put in place to help people through these difficult times.”
The links between economic woes and depression are well documented. Victoria Walsh, campaigns and policy manager at mental health charity Rethink, said its information centres and telephone advice lines were reporting a surge in people experiencing problems as a result of financial difficulties. “We are seeing people coming in who have been high fliers and now find life without their jobs overwhelming,” she said.
Politicians and experts working in the field of depression said it was important that alternative therapies should be made available to counter the increasing reliance on antidepressants at a time when people were at their most vulnerable. “Doctors want their patients to have effective, long-term help, and drugs must not be the only answer,” Lamb said. “Urgent action is needed to ensure psychological therapies are available to those who need them.”
Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said: “Pills have a role but they play better with some people than others for a range of spiritual, social, emotional and biological reasons.”
There is also a geographical divide. A recent Mental Health Foundation analysis of the latest NHS data shows that 22 of the 25 highest-prescribing primary care trusts are in the north of England, while 23 of the lowest 25 prescribers are in the London area.
Hodson said it was not surprising that rising levels of unemployment were contributing to increases in the incidence of depression. “Depression can be caused by unacceptable change happening at an unacceptable rate,” he said. “For some, too much change can be paralysing.”
Hodson warned that the use of antidepressants could not solve someone’s problems in the long term and that only by addressing them could a person hope to deal with depression. “There are no cures for life,” he said. “I have every sympathy with GPs who are pressed into prescribing them, it’s what their patients want. Doctors want to be liked, they don’t want to be unpleasant but sometimes tough love is a better idea.”
Dave Stocks, 42, from Lichfield, Staffordshire, experienced severe depression after his business running coffee bars in business parks had problems and he was threatened with repossession of his home.
Stocks, who now has a job in management, credits psychological therapy provided by the NHS with his turnaround. “I’m still on an antidepressant, but I’m not convinced it does anything other than help me to sleep. Medication can work when mixed with psychological therapies but antidepressants mustn’t be prescribed willy-nilly and if they are they must be prescribed by professional mental health experts, not GPs.”
He urged those with mental health problems caused by their economic circumstances to seek sound financial advice as a matter of urgency.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It may seem there are no options but in the current economic climate, banks and creditors are willing to agree new repayment terms.”
Earlier this year the government pledged more psychological help to people facing unemployment and debt. The scheme will see people referred to psychotherapists for expert counselling via an advice network linking Jobcentres, doctors’ surgeries and NHS Direct.
The government has already committed £173m to plug gaps in mental health provision. It has promised to train 3,600 more therapists and hundreds more specialist nurses. A psychotherapy centre will be established in every primary care trust by the end of next year.
Walsh said it was vital the government did not cut back on mental health services as it looked to balance its books.