Fears UK could follow the US into opioid crisis

By Sadiya Chowdhury, news reporter

Overuse of powerful prescription medication could lead to an addiction crisis in the UK similar to that being seen in the US, mental health professionals are warning.

Public Health England will publish a review today showing that 141 million prescriptions were handed out for strong painkillers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication and sleeping pills last year.

Doctors issued nearly 71 million prescriptions for antidepressants – a 97% increase compared to 2008. Opiates were up to 40.5 million – 22% more when compared to a decade earlier. And more than 500,000 more sleeping tablets were doled out, a 10% increase.

Anti-depressants are included because officials say some people suffer severe symptoms when they try to stop using the drugs, even though they are not generally recognised as dependence-forming.

Prescriptions for the drug pregabalin, originally used to treat epilepsy but also used for anxiety, was up by 661% with more than 3 million.


Glasgow-based psychotherapist Marion Brown's husband took his own life in 2011 after taking antidepressants for two decades.

He had been a GP who prescribed antidepressants to his patients.

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"He was living through this time when there was huge pressure on GPs to prescribe antidepressants," she said.

"There was this Defeat Depression campaign in the 1990s and all the GPs were encouraged and incentivised to start people on antidepressants.

"We're now seeing the legacy of that where we've got people who have been on antidepressants for over 20 years and can't come off them. Or if they try to, they run into huge problems.

"That happened to my own husband. He became completely unstable. He couldn't find stability again. And he was mystified, he said that the guidelines don't say anything about this."

Over-prescribing dependence-forming medication to patients with chronic or long-term pain is sometimes followed by a failure to check on vulnerable patients who are left on the drugs for years. One patient, was reportedly left on the drug for 15 years.

Drugs manufacturers are also blamed for using aggressive marketing tactics to get the NHS to boost prescription of these pills.

Dr John Read, professor of clinical psychology at the University of East London, represented the British Psychological Society on the PHE review.

He said: "I think it's going to be an historic document in years when we look back on it, a turning point from decades of minimising the extent of the problem here."

In the US, prescription opiates – considered a gateway drug to harder illegal substances – have resulted in what has been called an opioid crisis.

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