Millions of people face severe side-effects when trying to come off anti-depressants, a major review has concluded.
For years health officials have played down the difficulty of withdrawing from antidepressants, insisting side-effects are ‘mild’ and last no more than a week or two.
But a review of medical evidence today shows 56 per cent of people suffer withdrawal effects if they try to come off the drugs.
The worst-hit experience nausea, anxiety, insomnia and agitation, with many people put back on antidepressants as doctors mistake the symptoms for a relapse of depression itself.
The issue is contentious – just last week a senior psychiatrist resigned from his Government position after he received sustained abuse for playing down the side-effects of withdrawal.
The new study, in the Journal of Addictive Behaviours, suggests of the seven million people taking antidepressants in England alone, four million are at risk of withdrawal symptoms if they try to come off the pills.
Some 1.8million are at risk of severe symptoms and for 1.7million – 25 per cent of patients taking the drugs – the withdrawal effects would last at least three months.
Experts believe the problem has helped drive up antidepressant use in Britain to levels that are among the highest in the Western world.
The scientists behind the review, from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence, called for guidelines by NHS watchdog NICE to be rewritten in light of the findings.
Researcher Dr James Davies, of Roehampton University, said: ‘This new review of the research reveals what many patients have known for years – that withdrawal from antidepressants often causes severe, debilitating symptoms which can last for weeks, months or longer.
‘Existing NICE guidelines fail to acknowledge how common withdrawal is and wrongly suggest that it usually resolves within one week.
‘This leads many doctors to misdiagnose withdrawal symptoms, often as relapse, resulting in much unnecessary and harmful long-term prescribing.’
The review involved evidence from 24 existing studies, including 5,300 patients. The findings have been submitted to Public Health England, which is conducting a review into prescription pill dependency.
That review was triggered by a campaign by the Daily Mail raising awareness of patients left dependent on drugs through no fault of their own.
People in Britain use more antidepressants than almost every other country in the Western world. Experts believes this is partly due to lack of awareness of withdrawal problems.
According to the NHS, 16 per cent of adults – seven million people in England – took the drugs in 2016-17. This is one of the highest rates in the world.