Why we need to talk about women and antidepressants now more than ever

Posted by for Health

More women in the UK have been prescribed antidepressants since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic than ever before, but what are the consequences and how are young women faring on their medication?      

Welcome to Women On Antidepressants, a new series exploring the issues young women face around getting prescribed, experiencing side effects, dealing with relationships while on medication, and life after antidepressants. 

The toll on women’s mental health since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is serious and far-reaching. This is borne out in the numbers seeking help from their GPs, and the sharp rise in prescriptions for antidepressants.

Even before the pandemic, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants in England had almost doubled in the past decade. Data from NHS Digital shows that 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were given out in 2018, compared with 36 million back in 2008.   

Fast forward to the period spanning 2019-2020 and more than 76 million antidepressants were dispensed, up 23% on the 2015-16 figures, according to NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) data.

Of that vast number, the majority are women. Past data from Public Health England proves that women take antidepressants more than men, at almost double the rate in fact. Public Health England’s most recent analysis shows that, in 2017 to 2018, 7.3 million people (17% of the adult population) were prescribed antidepressants. Rates were significantly higher for women (1.5 times those of men), and the rates generally increased with age. 

The figures also showed a significant gap between rich and poor people with 17% of the nation’s poorest needing antidepressants to cope. 

In January this year, an investigation by The Guardian found that calls to mental health helplines and prescriptions for antidepressants reached an all-time high, while access to “potentially life-saving talking therapies has plunged during the coronavirus pandemic”.

Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown, joint honorary secretary for the Royal College of GPs, said: “The last year will have been tough for most people. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions we have been living under, whether directly or indirectly, has had an impact on many patients’ mental, and physical, health.”

This is echoed by a recent survey of almost 1000 Stylist readers that found 12% of women asked said they had developed mental health issues over the past 12 months, while 20% of those with existing mental health issues said these had been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic. 

Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown continues: “GPs are at the forefront of delivering care for patients suffering with mental health conditions. Antidepressants are often an effective treatment that can help patients manage mental health conditions - but any decision to prescribe will be made in conversation between a GP and their patient based on their individual circumstances, taking into account benefits and risks of the treatment and considering alternative treatments, such as CBT and talking therapies.”

Long waiting lists for alternative and talking therapies and a lack of access to services and support is a huge factor for many experiencing a mental health problems. So much so that some doctors here (who have voiced concerns in publications such as the British Medical Journal and broadsheets like The Guardian) argue that we are becoming over-reliant on medication in an attempt to paper over the cracks of the mental health crisis. 

“Access to alternative therapies in the community, that many patients with mental health conditions find beneficial, is patchy across the country. This needs to be addressed urgently to ensure patients can access these treatments quickly, particularly in view of the increased demand for these services due to the pandemic”, says Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown. 

Young depressed woman is sitting on the large pill. Concept of antidepressants are saving girl from depression and about pills effect on females mood and health. Flat cartoon vector illustration.

And this problem ripples across the UK; hundreds of people across Wales are waiting more than a year to access psychological therapies on the NHS, according to a major new report from Mind Cymru.

The report, Too Long To Wait, revealed that between April 2019 and August 2020 thousands of people were left waiting for more than half a year to receive specialist psychological therapies. During that time, hundreds more waited more than 12 months.

On 27 March 2021, the government announced a £500 million Mental Health Recovery Action Plan to respond to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of the public. That investment is desperately needed and will go towards supporting those with mental health difficulties, ranging from severe mental illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia to those with more common mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

Under the plan, NHS talking therapies that offer treatment of conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD will expand, supporting 1.6 million people to access services this year and next. 

While the government’s plan was welcomed by mental health charities such as Mind and Rethink, it’s only going to tackle the tip of the iceberg. 

No matter what way you look at it, the impact of the pandemic on women’s mental health is profound, and because of it, many find themselves in a precarious situation – whether that’s needing support when starting medication for the first time; adjusting to side effects; negotiating relationships with friends, families and significant others while depressed, anxious and on medication; dealing with stigma; or weaning themselves off medication. And that’s just what is happening right now – what long-term impact this will have as we move out of lockdown remains to be seen.

In Stylist’s new digital series Women and Antidepressants we will investigate the myriad of issues that surround women being prescribed, taking and coming off antidepressants. For news, first-person essays and features check the dedicated hub daily. If you have a story about antidepressants to share email digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations here. If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer. For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

Images: Getty/Ponomariova_Maria

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Katy Harrington

Katy Harrington is Stylist’s commissioning editor and acting deputy digital editor.