The APPG for Prescribed Drug Dependence is pleased that Panorama is shining a spotlight on the scandalous story of antidepressant overprescribing and dependence. While these drugs can be helpful for some people – at least over the short term – they have been prescribed much too easily too far too many people over recent decades. Prescribing data shows that there were 83 million prescriptions issued in England in 2020/21, with over 8 million adults now taking the drugs. Often they are prescribed for mild, transient emotional issues, and yet many people end up taking them for years as they cannot come off. And we know from research that around 25% of people taking antidepressants will have severe symptoms when they try to withdraw. Often this withdrawal experience leads to such debilitating, long-term suffering that lives are turned upside down, and in some cases this leads to suicide. The Panorama programme highlights some of these powerful stories.
In 2019 Public Health England published a report which identified that 25% of the adult population of the England had taken a dependence-forming drug in the past year. It made several key recommendations including the provision of a national 24 hour helpline. The call for a helpline was also supported by the BMA, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of General Practitioners. Since then a commissioning framework has been published by NHS England which calls for Integrated Care Boards to provide local withdrawal services.
Yet there is no additional funding available for these services, and the Government has also refused to provide funding for the helpline. Nothing has changed on the ground – in fact the problem has become worse as a small number of charities which were providing support have one-by-one lost their funding. One of the last of these, the Bristol and District Tranquiliser Project, is closing its doors this August.
It is morally unacceptable that patients who have been harmed by drugs simply taken as prescribed should be unable to access services to help them. We therefore call on the Government urgently to provide funding for these services, including a national 24 hour helpline.
Danny Kruger, chair of the APPG for Prescribed Drug Dependence said: “This powerful Panorama programme highlights the tremendous suffering which can be caused by dependence on antidepressants, which are far too easily prescribed to far too many people. Research shows that almost 2 million people in the UK are at risk of severe antidepressant withdrawal. The Government has a moral obligation to help these people and must therefore urgently implement the key recommendations of its own 2019 review, including funding for local withdrawal services and a national 24 hour helpline.”