Could antidepressants be a solution to the mental health crisis?

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With the NHS under stress and ever faceing a lack of funding, Camille Hnat analyses the effectiveness of antidepressants and whether or not they provide a long term solution for sufferers of mental health disroders.

Whether you have been affected by it or know someone who has, mental illness is an unfortunate part of many of our lives. 1 in 4 adults in the UK will struggle with mental illness throughout their life. According to the most recent Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS, 2014), 19.7% of people over the age of 16 experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. And these numbers don’t seem to be slowing down.


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As rates of depression and anxiety increase, so does the need for accessible treatment. Currently, antidepressant prescription is at an all-time high. The NHS have reported that the annual number of antidepressant medications dispensed has risen from 31 million in 2006 to 64.7 mill in 2016; an increase of more than 100% over the last decade. This increase has occurred amidst much controversy as to whether antidepressants are an effective form of treatment. The benefits of antidepressant drug use for common mental disorders (including depression, anxiety and chronic pain) has been highly debated, with research often producing conflicting results.

In a recent report published in the Lancet, a global team of researchers have undertaken a meta-analysis of a huge amount of data on the effects of antidepressants in patients with major depressive disorders. The study included data on 21 different medications, with 116,477 participants across 522 experimental trials. They found that all 21 antidepressant medications were more effective than placebos at alleviating symptoms of severe depression.

Some antidepressants can have nasty side effects, ranging from nausea and loss of libido to increased anxiety.

Many are hailing this research as a huge step forward in the treatment of clinical depression. But is this new information enough to end the antidepressants debate?

The study does not give much insight into the use of antidepressants on patients showing symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression or anxiety disorders, who are often prescribed these medications. Some antidepressants can have nasty side effects, ranging from nausea and loss of libido to increased anxiety. In more extreme cases, some individuals may experience heightened suicidal tendencies. In a 2016 article for the Guardian, Vicki Nash, head of policy and campaigns at mental health charity Mind, said: “We must remember that while antidepressants can be very effective for some, they are not the solution for everyone and they should never be used as a first-line treatment for mild depression.” Talking therapies are still one of the most useful tools we have in treating all forms of depression.


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We can’t ignore the possibility that an increase in the prescription of antidepressants is, at least in part, a product of a healthcare system that is overworked, understaffed and underfunded. We are facing a worsening mental health crisis in the UK. It is the sad truth that therapy is now a luxury to many people, and a box of pills may provide a faster and cheaper alternative for those seeking treatment. This research in support of antidepressants may provide some hope for mental illness sufferers who have limited access to mental health services.

Inadequate support and long waiting times were the biggest issues raised by students when it came to accessing university mental health care.

This is especially true within universities, where mental health services are strained, and many must wait months for counselling. In a 2017 report from Student Minds, inadequate support and long waiting times were the biggest issues raised by students when it came to accessing university mental health care. For young people with severe depression, antidepressants may provide at least a short-term treatment plan when therapy is not an immediate option.

No matter what side of the debate you are on, reducing the stigma around antidepressants may be life-saving for some individuals. The discussion around antidepressant use, and mental health treatment in general, is hugely important and should be continued. However, we should not be hasty in placing medication above alternative treatments when treating less severe cases. Rather, increasing opportunities for talking therapy and good mental health support are needed to allow patients to access the treatment that is right for them.

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