There has been a significant increase in prescribing of anxiety medication by health professionals over the past decade, a study has suggested.
The research in the British Journal of General Practice has also argued this rise has been most marked in prescriptions for young adults, aged 18-34.
It has been well-documented that mental ill health has risen markedly during the pandemic, but this study, by academics from the University of Bristol, has reinforced the fact rising rates of anxiety medication prescribing well pre-dates the pandemic.
After a period of declining or steady prescribing since 2003, there was a marked increase between 2012 and 2018, the figures based on an analysis of GP records have shown, with the exception of benzodiazepines, a type of sedative medication.
The increases were largely driven by greater prescribing of antidepressants, although the period also saw increased prescribing of beta-blockers, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants.
The researchers concluded that the increases could reflect better detection of anxiety, increasing acceptability of medication, or an earlier unmet need.
Anxiety and work
“However, some prescribing is not based on robust evidence of effectiveness, may contradict guidelines, and there is limited evidence on the overall impact associated with taking antidepressants long term. As such, there may be unintended harm,” the study concluded.
Increased prescribing of anti-anxiety medications suggested more patients were becoming open to seeking help for mental health concerns, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said in response to the study.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said: “Evidence shows that antidepressants can be effective drugs when used appropriately, so this research should not be a cause for alarm – indeed, it is most likely to suggest that more people are seeking medical help for anxiety-related conditions, as well as improvement in the identification and diagnosis of them.
“There may be a number of reasons why more women than men are being prescribed anti-anxiety medication, but one is likely to be that women are more comfortable seeking help for mental health conditions. It shows there is still more that needs to be done to address stigma associated with poor mental health, particularly amongst men, and we’d encourage men who are struggling with their mental health to come forward and seek medical support.”
But Professor Marshall cautioned that the full impact of the pandemic in terms of prescribing for anxiety may still be yet to come clear.
“It’s important to note that this study looked at prescribing rates pre-pandemic, and GPs across the country are reporting increasing presentations of mental health conditions, including anxiety, since the onset of the crisis,” he said.
“What we do need to see to improve mental health care for patients is better access to alternative mental health treatments in the community across the country – and for staffing in general practice to be addressed, including increasing numbers of mental health therapists,” he added.