Brexit aftermath linked to rise in antidepressant prescribing

According to the BMJ, the prescription of antidepressants rose immediately after 2016’s referendum voted for the UK to leave the EU

Antidepressant prescribing in England rose, relative to other types of drug, in the immediate aftermath of the results of the European Union referendum in June 2016.

This is according to research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

While this finding is open to interpretation, the trend might have been prompted by the increased uncertainty experienced by some sectors of the population, in the wake of the vote, the researchers suggest.

Mental health service provision may need to be strengthened during such periods, they add.

When the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, the unexpected result led to considerable uncertainty as to how this would affect the British economy and society, say the researchers.

The evidence suggests that major societal events can affect a nation’s mental health, and the researchers wanted to find out if the vote for Brexit might have had a similar impact.

They, therefore, compared official monthly prescribing data for antidepressants for all 326 voting areas in England with other classes of drugs for conditions less likely to be immediately affected by changes in mood.

The researchers looked at prescribing patterns specifically for the month of July for every year between 2011-16, to capture the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, and across each of those years to see if there were any discernible trends.

Analysis of the data showed that, before the referendum, defined daily doses (DDDs) for antidepressants rose during the month of July year on year, as did prescribing for insulins and gout, iron deficiency anaemia and blood fat and glucose drugs.

In the month after the referendum, DDDs for antidepressants continued to rise, albeit at a slower pace, but those for the other drugs fell, having experienced a period of growth. The only exception were prescriptions for muscle relaxants, which had already been in decline.

The researchers calculated that, after the referendum, the volume of antidepressants prescribed increased by 13.4% relative to the other classes of drugs studied.

This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. Antidepressants aren’t prescribed to everyone, so the results can’t be taken to mean that the mood worsened across the whole of England, nor can they rule out that mood actually improved for some people, emphasise the researchers.

“Overall, while our findings point towards a relative increase in antidepressant prescribing as measured by DDDs per capita, results should be interpreted with caution, and further research is needed to examine whether there is any short-term relationship between the referendum result and mental health,” they write.

But they say: “Our study focused on an event that was unexpected, leading to an immediate shock. From a more general perspective, this paper shows that shocks nationally can affect health, and that uncertainty about, and expectations of, future effects can have an impact on health in the short term.”

And they suggest: “Policies supporting mental health should be intensified in periods of uncertainty.”

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