One in three women has taken anti-depressants during their lifetime while nearly half of those currently prescribed the medication have done so for at least five years, with a quarter doing so for a decade, according to a survey.
The study by women's campaign group Platform 51, formerly the YWCA, claimed that the use of drugs such as Prozac and Cipramil had reached "crisis" proportions, and accused GPs of flouting National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) guidelines when it came to routinely represcribing the drugs.
The charity's research found that of 2,000 women polled, 57% of those who had taken anti-depressants were not offered any alternatives to drugs. It urged greater use of psychological therapies – so-called "talking cures" – such as cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling. It said one in four women questioned had waited a year or more for their treatment to be reviewed.
Platform 51's director of policy, Rebecca Gill called for a review into the current guidelines for anti-depressant use and prescription. She insisted the charity was not attacking GPs or the drugs themselves but that the findings reflected concern felt by women taking them.
"Women and girls in our centres have talked about feeling quite numb and not being in control of their lives when they are on antidepressants. They don't want to take them for a long time and would prefer GPs and health workers to discuss with them why they are down in the first place. The can feel that no one is interested in their back story," she said.
But doctors' leaders dismissed the poll as "alarmist". Dr Clare Gerada, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said the drugs were a vital treatment. "Antidepressants save lives. In the past GPs have been criticised for being cautious about prescribing them and not prescribing them for long enough or in a high enough dose," she said.
A quarter of people suffer from depression at some point. Women are more likely to present to their GP with the symptoms and in the majority of cases the condition can be controlled without recourse to medication, which did not provide a "magic wand" but allowed sufferers to cope, Dr Gerada added.
Those who required drug treatment normally did so for between 12 and 18 months and GPs were trained to offer antidepressants in association with other therapies, she said. However, Dr Gerada was concerned about the finding that 18 per cent of women kept their prescription a secret from their family and 10 per cent did not tell their partner.
Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, called for greater access to psychological therapies but said that the increase in prescription drugs was down to a better understanding of mental illness.
"In some ways it is encouraging to see that unlike former generations, who would suffer in silence, people are more open about their mental health," he said.
Case study: 'Pills helped me sort my issues'
Kate Whitley, 45, from Oxford, took anti-depressants for around eight months after a visit to her doctor.
"The pills gave me the time I needed to sort out the issues I had. But I was keen to stop taking them because I was worried about developing a dependency. I never saw them as a long-term solution.
"I made an appointment with my doctor because, I was having trouble sleeping. Then at other times, I was sleeping too long. I felt uneasy and stressed often and I was making very strange decisions in my life; I could not think straight.
"The doctor said it sounded like I should take Prozac and sleeping pills and seek counselling. I stopped the sleeping pills and counselling but carried on with the Prozac, got myself back into a routine and worked through my issues and, happily, was able to stop using the anti-depressants."