The drugs do work, according to a major new study into the effectiveness of antidepressants in treating mental illnesses, like depression in adults.
Research from Oxford University, which was published in The Lancet, involving 116,000 patients across 522 trials found that every one of the 21 antidepressants tested works better than a placebo.
Why, then are do so many people feel the need to hide the fact they are taking them?
“Our research tells us that a majority of people experiencing a mental health problem still face stigma or discrimination,” says Sue Baker OBE, Director of Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
“This can prevent people from seeking treatment or speaking out, which leads to all too many ‘suffering in silence’ for fear of being judged and isolated.”
It seems incredible that the taking of pills to control mental illness is still considered a guilty secret, particularly when you consider how many people are actually being prescribed antidepressants.
According to recent statistics, the NHS prescribed a record number of antidepressants in 2016, fuelling an upward trend that has seen the number of pills given to patients more than double over the last decade.
A further survey revealed that at least one in 11 British adults now take antidepressants.
“This stigma refers to stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes held not only about taking anti-depressive medication but also around mental illness itself.
“This is linked to different social, financial and cultural factors that both doctors and patients can have.”
She says that it’s these barriers that often keep people with mental health problems fighting problems in isolation, leading to bigger problems and even suicide.
So what do we do about removing the stigma?
“The first step in overcoming stigma and fear felt is asking for treatment, discussing problems with a GP or a counsellor helps one overcome this stigma and fears is the first step in recognising that there is something which doesn’t work and is the first step in the road to recovery,” Gabriela van den Hoven explains.
And the new statistics highlighting the effectiveness of antidepressants as a potential treatment could also help.
“I think that these new statistics might help change the way people, and in particular, doctors, see anti-depressant prescription alongside psychotherapy,” she says.
“Doctors play an important role in helping the population make informed decisions about their mental health and how it can be treated.”
Sue Baker believes that changing the conversation surrounding mental health as a whole will be an important step in tackling stigma around the taking of antidepressants.
“Only when we all change the way we think and act about mental health will everyone feel able to talk openly about, and seek treatment for, mental health problems without fear of judgement,” she says.
Baker agrees that the new research could be a contributing factor to changing the way people view mental health.
“This new research goes some way to challenge the stigma that surrounds mental health by reinforcing the message that depression is a real and potentially debilitating condition, for which people should seek treatment should they need to,” she says.
And for many people, as the new research suggests, antidepressants can be a hugely effective way of treating a mental health disorder and provide a vital ingredient in supporting someone towards recovery.
But it is by no means the only option.
“It’s important to say that, while antidepressants can be effective for some, they are not the solution for everyone,” says Sue Baker. “What people find helpful in managing their mental health will vary from person to person – whether this is medication, talking therapies, making lifestyle changes such as taking exercise, or a mixture of these.”
That’s something mental health charity MIND agrees with.
“What people find helpful in managing their mental health will vary from person to person – whether this is medication, talking therapies, making lifestyle changes such as taking exercise, or a mixture of these,” says Rachel Boyd, information manager at Mind.
“Anyone considering taking antidepressants should be made aware of the possible side effects they might experience and should have their treatment reviewed regularly,” she adds.
Rachel also thinks it’s important to look into the factors contributing to an increase in antidepressant prescriptions in recent years.
“It’s essential that we understand the reasons behind this continued rise including how many people are taking antidepressants, for how long, and whether they are being offered other treatments and therapies alongside,” she says.
“Giving people a choice of treatments is key, whether that’s drugs, talking therapies, alternatives such as arts therapy or exercise, or a combination of some or all of these. Someone managing their mental health problems should be treated as a whole person and they should be able to access whatever treatment, or combination of treatments, works best for them.”
The fact is that mental health is just as much as illness as any other, and as such it should be treated with equal respect.
And that means seeking the treatment, medicated or otherwise, that is best going to help on the journey to recovery.
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