Two million people in England have taken antidepressants for more than five years

According to sources, more than a quarter of patients on antidepressants in England,  approximately two million people, have been taking them for five years.

This is despite the fact that there is limited evidence of the benefits of taking the medications for so long. Some individuals may find it difficult to stop taking their medication due to withdrawal symptoms, according to a physician who directs a clinic within the National Health Service that assists patients in quitting prescription drugs.

In 2019, withdrawal guidance was revised, but according to him, little has changed. Antidepressants are prescribed for depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other conditions to over eight million individuals in England. According to NHS prescribing figures, this is one million more persons than five years ago.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request, the NHS provided BBC Panorama with updated long-term usage statistics for the years 2018-2022. The data provide an overall picture, but do not reflect the specific circumstances of individual patients, some of whom may be taking antidepressants for an extended period of time for good reason.

The investigation also uncovered evidence that a prominent pharmaceutical company attempted to conceal withdrawal side effects of a drug 27 years ago. In the late 1980s, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) such as Prozac were introduced as modern antidepressants. Compared to earlier medications, some of which had severe adverse effects, they were hailed as miracle drugs almost immediately.

They were believed to treat depression by correcting an imbalance of the brain's mood-regulating chemical serotonin. Researchers are uncertain as to how they function. One theory is that they merely alter how you think or feel without addressing the underlying issue.

Antidepressants are recommended by the NHS as a treatment for severe depression. As an alternative to or in conjunction with the medication, talking therapy, exercise, and lifestyle modifications may be suggested.

Prof. Wendy Burn, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has witnessed the positive effects of antidepressants throughout her extensive and lengthy career. "In my clinical practice, I see them at work and transforming lives." People are taking antidepressants for a long time, but there are no long-term studies to substantiate this claim, she added.

Concerning the efficacy of antidepressants, there has been a lengthy debate. The most extensive research, conducted by the University of Oxford, indicates that antidepressants do help some individuals, at least temporarily. According to the researcher who conducted the study, however, their benefits are modest on average, and individuals respond differently, with some not responding at all.

In addition, there is evidence that long-term antidepressant use may be associated with certain health hazards, such as heart disease and diabetes. Long-term use may also increase the risk of withdrawal symptoms in certain individuals. When a substance to which the body has become accustomed is discontinued, withdrawal can occur.

Before the brain has had a chance to acclimate, abruptly discontinuing a medication can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. Due to the overlap between withdrawal symptoms and the original condition the substance was prescribed for, withdrawal can sometimes be mistaken for relapse.

The symptoms depend on the individual, the substance, and the duration of use. Numerous patients can discontinue antidepressants without experiencing adverse effects.