33,000 people in Northumberland took anti-depressants last year as health chiefs admit it's too high

More than 33,000 people in Northumberland were on anti-depressants last year, with health bosses admitting the rate is ‘higher than they would like’.

By Ben O'Connell
Thursday, 17th October 2019, 4:20 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 5:54 pm
More than 33,000 people in Northumberland were on anti-depressants last year, with health bosses admitting the rate is ‘higher than they would like’.
More than 33,000 people in Northumberland were on anti-depressants last year, with health bosses admitting the rate is ‘higher than they would like’.

Public Health England (PHE) recently published a review that assessed the number of prescriptions issued for five common medicines used to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.

The report covers prescribing rates for anti-depressants, opiate pain medicines, gabapentinoids, benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, broken down by clinical commissioning group (CCG) areas in England.

It reveals that as of March 2018, 33,418 people in Northumberland were estimated to be in receipt of a prescription for antidepressants, with 57.6% of them believed to have had a prescription for at least 12 months.

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This latter figure places Northumberland 45th out of the 195 English CCGs in terms of the highest proportions.

At the same point, almost 18,000 people had a prescription for opioid pain medicines, with 55.6% of them estimated to be for at least 12 months, for a rank of 29th nationally.

Northumberland CCG was ranked highest in relation to benzodiazepines – 20th; in March 2018, 59.4% of the 2,472 people in the county in receipt of prescriptions for these drugs, which are used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, had been receiving them for at least 12 months.

The review recommends better monitoring and support of patients taking prescribed medicines and also calls for a national patient helpline to be set up.

PHE advises that if people taking these medicines have concerns, they should not stop taking them on their own, but make an appointment to discuss it with a doctor.

A spokesman for NHS Northumberland CCG said: “The CCG shares many of the concerns raised in the PHE report and has already taken steps to address a number of them.

“The report relates to five classes of medicines and there is currently a significant piece of work underway in relation to prescribing rates and the use of alternative approaches in each case.

“Specifically, while Northumberland has a higher prescription rate for anti-depressants than we would like, it remains below the North of England average.

“Reducing it is a complex undertaking as there are many factors which influence the development of, and recovery from, depression. For instance, lifestyle and demographics both have a significant and well-documented impact; any data needs to be interpreted with that in mind.

“The CCG provides extensive support to GPs in line with NICE guidance – including through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme – to ensure they have timely access to the treatment and care that their patients require.

“Please remember anyone can access information on how to look after their mental health and wellbeing, as well as details on how to seek help if they need it, by visiting https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/

UKAT – a group of private rehab centres which treats hundreds of patients for prescription drug addiction each year – welcomed the review, hoping that it will serve as a ‘serious wake-up call’.

“This report shows us that thousands of people living across the North East are crying out for help and unfortunately, they’re being given plasters in the form of pills to solve their problems,” said Nuno Albuquerque, group treatment lead at UKAT.

“There is no doubt that in the short term, these drugs may help, but long-term use of these drugs, for the majority, will be ineffective because over time, the patient is likely to develop physical and psychological tolerance to the drug.”

He added: “These figures suggest to me that GPs here are stretched and overwhelmed and need better support and investment to be able to offer alternative treatment therapies like talking therapy, yoga, exercise, diet and acupuncture to better tackle the root cause of their patients’ problems, instead of simply issuing a repeat prescription.”

Opiate prescription pain medicines can include codeine, morphine, fentanyl and hydrocodone.

Gabapentinoids (primarily gabapentin and pregabalin) are generally prescribed for epilepsy neuropathic pain. Pregabalin is also used for anxiety disorders.

Benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety or panic disorders. They act as muscle relaxants and include drugs like Xanax and Valium. Z-drugs are generally prescribed for sleep disorders and include zopiclone.