Leading mental health charity Mind has suggested an increase in the number of prescriptions across England could be a sign of worsening mental health across the country.
Figures from the Open Prescribing Service show 766,829 prescriptions for antidepressants were given out in the NHS Frimley CCG area in the year to March – a monthly average of 79.2 prescriptions per 1,000 patients.
This was an increase of 4% from the year before, when an average of 76 were given per 1000 patients, and an increase of 7% from 2019-20.
Antidepressants are commonly prescribed to improve mental health but may also be taken for conditions not directly related to this – such as certain types of long-term pain.
However, the story is similar for "selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors", the most commonly prescribed antidepressants for mental health conditions in England.
These are thought to increase the level of serotonin in the brain, and are often used to treat depression and anxiety.
SSRI prescriptions increased from a monthly average of 41.3 per 1,000 patients in east Berkshire, north east Hampshire, Farnham and Surrey Heath in the year to March 2020 to 44.3 in 2022 – a rise of 7%.
In east Berkshire, north east Hampshire, Farnham and Surrey Heath, SSRIs were prescribed 428,577 times last year – equating to 35,715 a month.
These figures are for the number of times medication has appeared on prescriptions, but do not show the quantity of medication given, and multiple prescriptions can be given to the same patient.
Mind says the pandemic may have caused a spike in conditions such as depression, but that many of those suffering were reluctant to seek help at the time.
The charity's head of information, Stephen Buckley, said: “Recent data on increased prescription rates suggests people are once again asking for help from their GP.
"The increase in prescriptions could indicate the prevalence of poor mental health is likely to have increased, which seems likely, and echoes our own research."
Across England, antidepressants appeared on 83 million prescriptions in the year to March, 45 million of which were for SSRIs.
This was an increase from 79 million and 43 million respectively the year before.
Mr Buckley says that the increase could also be the product of more people coming forward for treatment.
"The rise in antidepressant prescriptions dispensed could also reflect a wider shift in social attitudes, as stigma surrounding mental health decreases, and awareness and understanding improves,” he added.
Across England some 8.3 million patients received an antidepressant drug in 2021-22 – a 6% rise on 7.9 million the previous year.
They include 11,878 children aged 10 to 14, and 180,455 young people aged 15 to 19.
Separate research published in the Lancet scientific journal last April suggests that while antidepressant prescribing has risen during the pandemic, it is consistent with increases in preceding years, and therefore should instead be seen as part of a longer-term trend.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “We know the pandemic has taken a toll on the nation’s mental health, with record numbers of people coming forward for mental health care and NHS staff are working hard to meet this demand.
“Decisions about the best treatment options are made by clinicians jointly with their patients, and medication can be effective when used alongside psychological therapies such as talking therapy.
"It’s vital people continue to come forward for any support they may need.”