CN: ableism, anti-depressants, depression, inpatient care, suicide
This morning the Daily Mail printed with the headline ‘A Nation Hooked on Happy Pills’, commenting on a global study released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that, they claimed, suggests that Britain is becoming ‘hooked’ on antidepressants. Up 37.6 doses in every 1000 inhabitants per day in comparison to 2000, Ben Spencer — the Daily Mail’s medical correspondent — claims that this is due to patients demanding a ‘quick fix’ to avoid ‘feeling down’.
The outrage on social media has come in abundance, and for good reason — not only does this article blatantly invalidate the lived experiences of those with mental health issues in the UK, but it also seems to fundamentally misunderstand how antidepressants work, why they are prescribed, and what depression actually is.
For anyone who has ever suffered with depression, it seems obvious that there is a vast difference between being depressed, and ‘feeling down’, as the article quotes. Depression is an illness, like any other, caused largely by chemical imbalances in the brain. But it is much more complex than this, a study by Harvard Health found that the hippocampus is on average 9-13% smaller in depressed women, and that the illness is associated with low levels of neurotransmitters, which take weeks to regrow and form new connections through the treatment of antidepressants. Depression is a complex illness, one which can be seen and identified medically and socially. The mental health provisions must be just as vast and complex as the illness itself. It may be all in our heads, but so is any other disease of the brain — pathological or otherwise.
“The questions we should be asking at this moment in time is why there seems to be an increase in patients seeking help for depression, and how decisions on their treatment are made”
The question of whether antidepressants are wrongly prescribed is, of course, one that should be asked, a debate that should be had — but the writer, Ben Spencer, is not here to have that discussion. He is not here to call for more research or better support for mentally ill patients. Instead, he demonises those who have had the courage to seek help, who have recognised and admitted that something isn’t right, and have confided in their GP in search of support and treatment. The questions we should be asking at this moment in time is why there seems to be an increase in patients seeking help for depression, and how decisions on their treatment are made.
For many, including myself, medication is a lifeline. With NHS government cuts hitting mental health provisions the hardest, waiting times for initial assessments and following therapy are leaving millions of extremely unwell and at-risk individuals without any support for the illnesses they are battling. A study in April 2010 by the We Need to Talk Coalition found that one in five people with mental health issues have been waiting over a year to receive treatment, and one in ten over two years.
When I was released from a mental health ward earlier this year, it was under the conditions that I would, as a ‘high-risk’ patient, receive immediate support. After five months I have yet to receive an appointment for the initial assessment, after which the waiting list for therapy is, at a minimum, estimated at 18 months. If it were not for my medication, I would be unable to function outside of a psychiatric ward, not without the therapy and support that I am meant to be receiving. And this is not an isolated or rare incident, this is the current state of our health care system. According to Professor Louis Appleby, 60% of patients with anxiety or depression are not receiving any treatment, and a third of those who die by suicide haven’t been to a GP in the last year.
“If it were not for my medication, I would be unable to function outside of a psychiatric ward”
It seems to me that the Daily Mail article comes from a place of complacency with the writers own ignorance. Spencer evidently does not care about mentally ill patients, does not wish to properly understand the issue he is writing on nor to consider the implications of his article. You cannot demonise those with depression for taking the treatment offered, whilst they have no other alternatives or additional support. You cannot blame us for the lack of accessible care for mental health issues.
I think this boils down to a common misunderstanding of what depression actually is. It is not an absence of happiness. The opposite of depressed is not ‘happy’, it is simply ‘not depressed’. And it is not a question of whether we should stop prescribing antidepressants which are a lifeline for so many, but rather the results of the study cited by Spencer should be a call for better mental health provisions. Our government should be supporting increased investment in these services, and increased employment of mental health specialists, rather than it being down purely to GPs who have ten minutes to assess the complexity of ones mental health and decide on the treatment needed. The blame here is to be placed not on the patient, but on our government; they willingly deny the treatment needed for patients such as myself, living with an illness like any other, and coping in the only way we can.