Antidepressants cause withdrawal symptoms in over half of patients who try to quit them, review shows

'Severe, debilitating symptoms which can last for weeks, months or longer,' caused as people come off drugs, says Dr James Davies

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 02 October 2018 16:13 BST
One in four experience severe side effects
One in four experience severe side effects

More than half of all patients who come off their prescription antidepressants experience potentially serious withdrawal symptoms the can last for months, according to a major new report.

Across the UK millions of people coping with depression could be affected, the research commissioned by the by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Prescribed Drug Dependence suggests.

The report calls for new guidance on helping patients to manage the side-effects of coming off their medication after it found that 56 per cent of patients experience negative effects.

Current clinical guidelines by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) says that withdrawal symptoms are “usually mild” and last about one week.

But the APPG research estimates four million people in England experience some symptoms and in 46 per cent of cases (1.8 million people) these are severe.

Failure to recognise these issues is actually harming patients with mental health conditions, according to Dr James Davies, of the University of Roehampton, who led the research published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviours.

“This new review of the research reveals what many patients have known for years – that withdrawal from antidepressants often causes severe, debilitating symptoms which can last for weeks, months or longer,” Dr Davies said. “Existing NICE guidelines fail to acknowledge how common withdrawal is and wrongly suggest that it usually resolves within one week.

“This leads many doctors to misdiagnose withdrawal symptoms, often as relapse, resulting in much unnecessary and harmful long-term prescribing.”

Alongside Professor John Read, from the University of East London, the pair reviewed 14 studies, most of which found many patients experience withdrawal for weeks, months or longer.

In one study, 40 per cent of people had withdrawal symptoms for at least six weeks, while in another, 25 per cent of patients had symptoms for a minimum of three months.

Symptoms of antidepressant withdrawal can include anxiety, flu-like symptoms and insomnia.

Sir Oliver Letwin, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence, said: “This systematic review provides important new data on antidepressant withdrawal which will be considered by Public Health England as part of their current review into prescribed drug dependence.

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“The data suggests that existing medical guidelines in this area should be urgently updated to reflect the fact that antidepressant withdrawal is much more common, severe and long-lasting than previously stated.

“Furthermore, we hope that other medical bodies will take note of this new research, and update their own guidance accordingly.”

Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said antidepressants are “a life-saver” for many people but “not enough research has been done into what happens when you stop taking them”.

“As this review shows, for many people the withdrawal effects can be severe, particularly when antidepressants are stopped abruptly,” she added. “It’s good to see more of a focus on this. We are pleased that Public Health England are prioritising dependence on, and withdrawal from, prescribed medicines as an area of review and welcome NHS England’s referral to Nice asking that they do the same.”

Additional reporting by PA

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