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Recession depression? Surge in antidepressant across EU linked to crisis

Published time: November 21, 2013 11:14
Reuters / Darren Staples

Reuters / Darren Staples

Antidepressants could become nearly as widely-used as antibiotics across the leading economies, with more than one in 10 adults in some countries receiving prescriptions for them, according to a new report.

The study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has found that the global financial meltdown may have been a catalyst for the latest surge in usage of antidepressants.

In Spain, which in September 2013 experienced its highest rate of unemployment (26.6 percent, while youth unemployment climbed to 56.5 percent according to Eurostat), antidepressant prescriptions have jumped by 23 percent over the past five years. The good thing is that this increase was slightly lower than in the preceding four-year period (28 percent between 2003 and 2007.

In Portugal, where youth unemployment is currently over 37 percent, antidepressant consumption went up by 20 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Paradoxically enough, the consumption of antidepressants rose even more quickly in countries which were less affected by the economic crisis and have experienced a more rapid economic recovery. For instance, Germany, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, had a rise of 46 percent between 2007 and 2011.

The small island nation of Iceland, whose stock market after the 2008 financial crisis plunged 90 percent while unemployment rose ninefold, had the highest prescription rate of antidepressants: 105.8 doses a day for every 1,000 inhabitants in 2011, up from 70.9 in 2000 and 14.9 in 1989, the OECD figures showed.

"Part of the explanation for the high consumption in Iceland is that a much higher proportion of the population receives at least one prescription for an antidepressant each year. In 2008, almost 30 percent of women aged 65 and over had an antidepressant prescription in Iceland, compared with less than 15 percent in Norway," the OECD's "Health at a Glance" report revealed.

In Denmark, antidepressants prescriptions have also gone up, from 34.8 to 85.2, while rates in the UK have nearly doubled over the past decade: 70.7 antidepressant prescriptions a day for every 1,000 people in 2011. The UK has the seventh-highest prescribing rate for drugs such as the extremely popular Prozac. Meanwhile, according to the latest study by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), total personal debt in the UK has recently reached record highs – 1.4 trillion pounds, which means average households currently owe nearly as much as the country's economic output last year. Over 130,000 people declare bankruptcy or some other form of insolvency each year in the UK.

The consumption of antidepressants over the past decade has increased by over 80 percent on average across EU member states, according to the report. While some experts interpret these findings as evidence of a growing influence of depression, the trend also reflects greater efforts to provide treatments to people suffering from severe depression, as well as greater intensity of these treatments, the report suggests.

The ‘Health at a Glance’ study states that in England, for example, the increase in antidepressant consumption has been associated with a longer duration of drug treatment.

The director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health in the UK disagrees that the growing rate of antidepressant prescription has much to do with better recognition of depression in many countries.

"It's much more likely a testament to the effective marketing by the pharmaceutical industry,"
Professor Tim Kendall told the Guardian, "I also wonder if, in better-off countries, which OECD countries are, we don't have time to be depressed and seek chemical solutions to 'get rid of it'."  

Dr. Mark van Ommeren, of the World Health Organization's Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, also believes that a lot of people who shouldn't be getting antidepressants are getting them.

"Doctors and healthcare providers should be able to recognize depression correctly so that those who need antidepressants get them and those with only mild cases do not get prescribed."