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The Real Story On That "Antidepressant Surge"

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJanuary 7, 2012 8:39 PM


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Remember last week's story about how depression rates are soaring in Britain? It was all triggered by "new data" about an increase in antidepressant prescriptions.


At the time I was skeptical, not least because the data wasn't actually new, but I've done a bit more digging and it turns out the media coverage was even more misleading than I thought.

Here's some pretty graphs from the NHS Information Centre. I reiterate that all of these are freely available and have been for ages. Here's the one for antidepressants:

They've been rising strongly! In total prescription rates are about 60% higher now compared to in 2006. Oh dear.


What the papers didn't tell you is that pretty much every other class of drug has also increased over that period, by even more in some cases. Here's ADHD drugs, and dementia pills, which have increased by about 75% and 100% respectively:

There have also been steady increases in anticonvulsants and a 40% increase in meds for Parkinson's disease. All of the graphs are here.


So this suggests that there's been a general increase in prescriptions for brain drugs. But in fact it's even wider than that because if we look at the same data for cardiovascular system drugs, we find the same picture for most (although not all) kinds of these medications.

And for painkillers, we find over 50% increases in prescriptions of the stronger opioid drugs, a 20% increase in migraine drugs etc etc. I swear I'm not just copying and pasting the same graph.


Now clearly, all of these increased prescriptions don't mean that there are simultaneous explosions in rates of dementia, heart disease, pain, migraine, Parkinson's and ADHD, all in the past 5 years. We would have noticed if that were the case.

What's happened, clearly, is that doctors are just writing more prescriptions nowadays.

So it's misleading to say that there's been a spike in antidepressant prescriptions. Yes it's technically true but it ignores the context. The truth is that we seem to be experiencing a cultural shift in our relationship to medications - perhaps evidence of the creeping medicalization of life (although there are more prosaic explanations that need to be ruled out before we conclude that; this could be a bureaucratic change in the way prescriptions are counted.)

However, "Escalating Depression Crisis - Antidepressant Use Soars" is a better headline than "Possible Medicalization Gradually Continues For Sixth Year In Row".

The truth, sadly, has an inherent disadvantage in the battle for news coverage. If we find the truth boring, it's easy for someone to come along and make up something attention grabbing. But the only easy way to make the truth more interesting is to make it, well, less true.

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