July 21, 2024

Almost half of long-term antidepressant users can stop taking the medication with GP support and access to internet or telephone helplines, a study suggests.

Scientists said more than 40% of the people involved in the research, who were healthy and not at risk of relapse, managed to get off the drugs with advice from their doctors.

They also discovered that patients who were able to access online support and psychologists by phone had lower rates of depression, reported fewer withdrawal symptoms and better mental well-being.

The research was led by the universities of Southampton and Liverpool and Hull York Medical School and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research. The findings are published in the journal Jama Network Open.

In 2022-23, the most recent year for which NHS figures were available, 86 million antidepressants were prescribed to an estimated 8.6 million patients in England.

Prof Tony Kendrick, of Southampton University, who was the lead author of the research, said the findings were significant because they showed a large number of patients withdrawing from the drugs without the need for expensive intense therapy sessions.

He said: “This approach could eliminate the risk of serious side effects for patients on long-term antidepressants who are concerned about withdrawal.

“Providing patients with internet and telephone support through psychologists is also cost-effective for the NHS. Our findings show that support not only improves patient outcomes, but also tends to reduce the burden on primary health care as people reduce antidepressants.”

A total of 330 adults who took the medication for more than a year for a first episode of depression, or more than two years for a recurrence of the disease, were enrolled in the study.

Una Macleod, a co-author and professor of primary care medicine at Hull York Medical School, said: “Many patients take antidepressants for depression for more than two years, when they probably no longer need them. The evidence in our study is clear and suggests that the UK should establish a national helpline, telephone and online, to help people who want to come off the medication.

The findings are the latest in a seven-year research program called Reduce that is investigating the long-term effects of withdrawal from antidepressants.

Mark Gabbay, a co-author and professor of general practice at Liverpool, said the research suggests that many patients do not need intense face-to-face therapy sessions while they are withdrawing.

He said: “This is the first study to demonstrate that discontinuation of inappropriate long-term antidepressant treatment at scale is possible without psychological therapy.

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“Antidepressants are only recommended for up to two years in most cases, and people are at risk of increasing side effects as they get older. From our findings, we call for active reviews of family practitioners for discontinuation of antidepressants to be promoted.”

Earlier this month, the largest study of its kind found that one in six people who stop antidepressants will experience withdrawal symptoms as a direct result of the medicine, which was lower than previous estimates.

The Lancet Psychiatry reported that 15% of patients will experience one or more withdrawal symptoms directly caused by stopping the drugs, and about 2-3% will have severe symptoms.

Previous research has suggested much higher rates of withdrawal symptoms, with 56% of all patients affected, although experts have said this figure is not robust.

In the Lancet research of 21,000 people, the most commonly used antidepressants in the UK were found to have the lowest rates of withdrawal symptoms.

Stopping antidepressants can lead to various symptoms or none at all. The most commonly reported are dizziness, headache, nausea, insomnia and irritability.

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