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Antidepressant use rose after Brexit vote, data shows

Patrick Galey

Agence France-Presse

Paris | Fri, November 23, 2018 | 12:06 pm
Antidepressant use rose after Brexit vote, data shows

Although it was difficult to definitively tie the vote result to the rise in antidepressant use, Vandoros said the fact that the increase was relative to other forms of prescription drug was significant.  (Shutterstock/File)

Antidepressant use in England rose significantly compared to other prescription drugs in the wake of Britain's decision in 2016 to exit the European Union, according to new research released on Wednesday.

Debate over the merits of Brexit has dominated Britain's political discourse for more than two years, split families and communities and prompted panicked contingency plans from businesses in the event of a "no deal" with Brussels.

But relatively little attention has been paid to the impact Brexit -- and the long-running uncertainty that's dogged the process -- has had on the population's mental health.

Researchers at King's College London looked at official monthly prescribing data for antidepressants for all 326 voting districts in England, comparing it with other classes of drugs in the run up to the June 23, 2016 referendum and the weeks that followed.

Given that the Brexit result came as a surprise that ushered in "considerable uncertainty" over its effect on Britain's economy and society, the study authors wanted to see if that translated to greater antidepressant use.

After calculating a "defined daily dose" to ensure they could compare different types of drugs fairly, they found that after the vote the volume of antidepressants prescribed increased 13.4 percent relative to the other medicines studied. 

"This shows that relative antidepressant prescribing increased in England after the Brexit referendum, compared with other drug classes that were used as a control group," Sotiris Vandoros, senior lecturer in health economics at King's College London and adjunct professor at Harvard University, told AFP. 

Although it was difficult to definitively tie the vote result to the rise in antidepressant use, Vandoros said the fact that the increase was relative to other forms of prescription drug was significant. 

"A growing body of literature suggests that economic uncertainty can have negative effects on mental health," he said. 

"Job insecurity and worries about one's future finances are associated with poorer health outcomes. Any event that triggers uncertainty and worries can have a negative effect."

Read also: Some antidepressants may be linked to dementia: Study

Antidepressants up generally 

Given that antidepressants aren't prescribed to everyone, the study's authors said the results couldn't be taken to mean that the national mood as a whole worsened after the Brexit vote. 

Indeed, ardent supporters of Britain's voluntary rupture with its single largest trading partner may have noticed their mood improve in the wake of the referendum.

But Vandoros said that, all else being equal, the shock vote result and the tumult that followed was the "likely explanation" behind the relative rise in antidepressant use. 

The paper, which was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, argued that governments should do more to offer mental health advice and support during periods of political and economic uncertainty.

Allan Young, professor at King's Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience, who wasn't involved in the study, said its findings should be treated with "great caution".

"Antidepressant prescriptions have risen in England consistently over recent years and these data may simply reflect that rather than one single event," he said. "Nevertheless, the call to support mental health issues should be heeded."

With Prime Minister Theresa May facing a number of hurdles to get her final Brexit deal over the line by the time Britain leaves the bloc in March, Britons' may at least soon get some clarity over the future of their country -- for better or worse.

"When the UK leaves the EU, we will start to see reality unfolding with regards to the anticipated events," said Vandoros. "So uncertainty will be replaced with certain outcomes, whether positive or negative."

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