Are rich countries taking too many antidepressants?

One in 10 people in Iceland are on antidepressants, and prescription rates across the OECD have dramatically increased.

According to a report released today by the OECD, the use of antidepressants in wealthy countries has risen dramatically in the past decade. Across the high-income countries surveyed, the average proportion of people taking antidepressants increased from 3.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent between 2000 and 2011, but use of antidepressant drugs varies by country. In Iceland, one in ten adults is on antidepressants, but in Korea it’s more like 1 in 100. 30 per cent of women over 65 are on antidepressants in Iceland, compared to 15 per cent in Norway.

As the Guardian has reported, these findings have sparked fears that sadness is being over-medicalised, and that over-stretched doctors are forced, because of a shortage of alternative treatments for mild depression, including talking therapies, to over-prescribe.

There may be some truth to this: consider, for instance, that a quarter of people in the UK who are referred by their GP for further psychiatric help – 116,000 in total – have to wait for more than 28 days. For someone in severe distress, this can be too long to wait. You could understand that doctors might be inclined, in border-line cases, to prescribe antidepressants rather than risk leaving an individual showing signs of mild to moderate depression without any support.

The problem, however, is that it’s dangerous to generalise. One notable feature of the OECD report is how different each country’s mental health services and outcomes are. In Switzerland there are 45 psychiatric doctors per 100,000 patients, versus fewer than 10 per 100,000 in Korea, Turkey and Poland. In some countries GPs work much more closely with mental health services than others. Suicide rates across the whole of the OECD have decreased 20 per cent since 1990, but in Japan and Korea they have increased. Suicide rates in Korea (which has the highest suicide rate of the countries surveyed) are ten times higher than in Greece, which has the lowest rate. The excess mortality rate from schizophrenia is twice as high in Sweden as in Slovenia, and equally, a patient with bipolar disorder is three times more likely to die in Sweden as in Denmark.

There are lots of possible explanations for the increased use of anti-depressants across the OECD. Doctors may be over-prescribing, but it could also be that people are using antidepressants for longer periods of time, or that as the stigma lessens around mental illness, more people are seeking help. The chances are the reasons for increased antidepressant use vary by country.

Panic about the over-medicalisation of "sadness", an ordinary human condition, sometimes risk overshadowing the fact every day, antidepressants save countless of lives, and relieve many more people from acute suffering. I am much more worried about the many millions who lack access to any kind of psychological help (many of whom are not in rich countries) than the unknown number of people taking drugs they don’t strictly need.
 

A bottle of anti-depressant pills. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear