Antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed over 70 million times in England last year, figures show, nearly doubling in a decade.
A total of 70.9 million items used to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety were given out in 2018, according NHS Digital data.
It was almost double the 36 million dispensed a decade ago in 2008. It was also a rise from 67.5 million in 2017 and 64.7 million in 2016.
The overall cost of prescriptions dispensed in the community in England decreased by 3.7 per cent last year, from £9.2bn in 2017 to £8.8bn in 2018.
The total number of prescription items dispensed increased slightly, by 0.3 per cent from 1.1 billion in 2017.
The figure includes all items dispensed by the NHS in England, except those given out in hospitals or private prescriptions.
“For many people antidepressants can be lifesaving, but they should not be the ‘go-to’ for first instances of mild depression,” Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said.
“The National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends only using antidepressants with patients who have moderate to severe depression or for patients whose depression lasts for a long time.
“We need to ensure there is investment in alternative treatments such as talking therapies, and more research into the most effective ways of helping all patients suffering from a mental illness.”
Prescriptions for some low-value over-the-counter medicines have been cut since 2017 in a bid to save the health service millions of pounds a year.
Paracetamol, cold treatments and cough mixture are among the products that are no longer routinely prescribed as a result.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Prescribing is a core skill for GPs, and we will only prescribe medication to a patient after a full and frank discussion with them, considering their unique circumstances, and if we genuinely believe they will be of benefit to their patient.
“Antidepressants are no different, and it’s really important that increasing numbers of antidepressant prescriptions are not automatically seen as a bad thing, as research has shown they can be very effective drugs when used appropriately.
“It can be difficult to determine why prescribing rates fluctuate, these figures could indicate rising awareness of mental health conditions in society, and that more patients are feeling able to seek medical care for them – as well as demonstrating an improvement in the identification and diagnosis of mental health conditions.”
An NHS England spokesman said: “While antidepressants play an important role for some patients, an attitude of ‘a pill for every ill’ can mean not only do some people end up taking medicine they don’t need to, but taxpayer funding is spent on avoidable prescriptions.
“This is why the NHS is rolling out alternatives to medication, like 1,000 social prescribing link workers giving people care and advice tailored to their condition and, for mental health issues, the world’s most ambitious programme of talking therapies which can resolve common conditions like depression and anxiety.”
Additional reporting by Press Association