Politics 21 November 2018 | 18:09

Was the rise in antidepressant prescriptions really fuelled by Brexit?

21 November 2018 18:09

Social scientists, from King’s College London, have noted a rise in the number of people in England being prescribed antidepressants in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum. In a study, published in the British Medical Journal this week, researchers used ‘prescribing data’ to work out the number of antidepressant prescriptions per capita every month, in each of the 326 voting areas in England during the period of 2011–2016.

Searching for trends in the data, they observed an increase in the number of prescriptions in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, when compared to a controlled group that was unlikely to be associated with uncertainty and depression. The researchers found that ‘after the referendum the volume of antidepressants prescribed increased by 13.4 per cent relative to the other classes of drugs studied’.

Whilst the findings are certainly interesting, and fall in-line with the conclusions of other studies that have noted a correlation between financial uncertainty and poor mental health, a causal relationship between Brexit and the increased prescriptions could not be established. Despite what some press headlines have insinuated, we just don’t know if one caused the other.

‘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,’ researchers wrote in the paper.

Brexit may have fuelled a rise in antidepressant prescriptions, but it could just be one piece in the puzzle; there areother things that could well be contributing to this trend too. The on-going Tory-led austerity measures have been linked to poor mental health in multiple studies (here and here), and have led to a situation where GPs have only ten-minute appointments with their patients. It has become much easier to allow a patient to skip the huge waiting lists for cognitive behavioural therapy and put them on therapeutic medicine immediately.

Then we have the increased obsession with social media, that’s also been linked to poor mental health. Plus, in the past few years we have experienced a relative decline in the stigma associated with mental health issues. High-profile celebrities are now more willing to share their struggles with mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, and many media outlets have caught on to the trend. The result? More people feel comfortable going to their GP and asking for help.

There was a surge in hate crimes in England and Wales in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum too. Recent Home Office statistics show that these kinds of incidents have doubled in the past five years – a situation researchers have attributed in part to Brexit and in part to the spate of terror attacks last year. In the year following the referendum, a 17 per cent increase compared to the previous year was observed. Unsurprisingly, research has concluded that hate crimes can cause the victims a great deal of psychological distress.

It seems that there are plenty of social factors – yes, including our chaotic decision to leave the European Union – that have contributed to this increase in antidepressant prescriptions. ‘Additional research is required to further investigate whether there are any direct or indirect effects on health [from Brexit] and health-related behaviour,’ the researchers conclude. And given the fact that the Brexit soap opera shows no signs of slowing down, this seems more important than ever right now.