Public Health England has published a review showing that 141 million prescriptions were handed out for strong painkillers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills last year.
Doctors issued nearly 71 million prescriptions for antidepressants – a 97% increase compared to 2008. Opiates were up to 40.5 million – 22% more when compared to a decade earlier. And more than 500,000 more sleeping tablets were doled out, a 10% increase.
Anti-depressants are included because officials say some people suffer severe symptoms when they try to stop using the drugs, even though they are not generally recognised as dependence-forming.
Prescriptions for the drug pregabalin, originally used to treat epilepsy but also used for anxiety, was up by 661% with more than 3 million.
Glasgow-based psychotherapist Marion Brown’s husband took his own life in 2011 after taking antidepressants for two decades.
He had been a GP who prescribed antidepressants to his patients.
“He was living through this time when there was huge pressure on GPs to prescribe antidepressants,” she said.
“There was this Defeat Depression campaign in the 1990s and all the GPs were encouraged and incentivised to start people on antidepressants.
“We’re now seeing the legacy of that where we’ve got people who have been on antidepressants for over 20 years and can’t come off them. Or if they try to, they run into huge problems.
“That happened to my own husband. He became completely unstable. He couldn’t find stability again. And he was mystified, he said that the guidelines don’t say anything about this.”
Over-prescribing dependence-forming medication to patients with chronic or long-term pain is sometimes followed by a failure to check on vulnerable patients who are left on the drugs for years. One patient, was reportedly left on the drug for 15 years.
Drugs manufacturers are also blamed for using aggressive marketing tactics to get the NHS to boost prescription of these pills.
Dr John Read, professor of clinical psychology at the University of East London, represented the British Psychological Society on the PHE review.
He said: “I think it’s going to be an historic document in years when we look back on it, a turning point from decades of minimising the extent of the problem here.”
In the US, prescription opiates – considered a gateway drug to harder illegal substances – have resulted in what has been called an opioid crisis.
In August, a US court fined Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, a landmark $572m. The company was accused of a “cynical and deceitful brainwashing campaign” to drive up sales of its painkillers. It plans to appeal.
Britain has the world’s third fastest-growing rates of opioid use and there are fears a similar crisis could soon be seen here. Addiction experts, patient associations and health groups want more to be done to ensure the UK does not spiral into a US-like opioid crisis.
Dr Read said: “We are fast catching up with America and so that’s why this report and this point in time is so hugely important.
“It should affect our national guidelines on how often these drugs should be prescribed, and what people and GPs should be told about withdrawal from these things, and it should provide more services for people.”
Two-thirds of those addicted to prescription pills are middle-aged women and experts say more needs to be done to understand the underlying causes for mental and emotional distress.
Dr Read said: “If women are prescribed, for instance, antidepressants at twice the rate as men, that’s a social issue. This overuse of medication is effectively trying to medicate the effects of social deprivation and social issues.”
PHE is set to publish recommendations in its inquiry this week. In April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced plans to introduce cigarette-style labelling on opioid packaging to warn users about addiction.
Author: Sadiya Chowdhury