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Psychiatrists shift the mood on antidepressants

Matt Weaver
Wednesday February 13, 2002

The professional body for psychiatrists has conceded that antidepressant pills such as Prozac may only have a 50% success rate in treating depression.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists, which represents around 10,000 psychiatrists, has withdrawn previous advice that said "six or seven in every 10 depressed people will get better on antidepressants".

Based on the most recent research, new draft advice seen by says that between only 50% and 65% "will be much improved" if they take antidepressants.

For the first time, the new advice also concedes that herbal remedies made from the flower St Johns wort are "about as effective as antidepressants in milder depression".

The latest research, which the RCP stresses has not yet been finalised, is expected to be available next month.

The college's old advice said that antidepressants are not addictive. "There is no evidence that antidepressant drugs caused dependence syndromes," it said.

The new study acknowledges that there is a debate on the subject and points out that "up to a third of people experience withdrawal".

It says withdrawal "seems to be greatest" with Seroxat, the biggest selling antidepressant in the UK which, like Prozac, works by boosting the levels of the brain chemical serotonin.

Withdrawal symptoms included nausea, flue like symptoms, anxiety and sweating.

In the last few years, prescriptions for antidepressants have more than doubled in England, from 9m in 1991 to 22m in 2000, due largely to the increase of drugs such as Seroxat and Prozac, known technically as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.

One of the reasons for this sharp uptake was the view that SSRI were effective and relatively problem free, a view brought into question by the RCP's new advice.

The study comes after a report by Health Which? claiming that official advice on antidepressants was misleading.

Health Which? also pointed out that recent research suggests a link between suicide and SSRI.

The draft RCP guidelines claim that "suicidal thoughts will pass once the depression starts to lift".