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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 February 2008, 11:20 GMT
Why are we in love with happy pills?
By Nick Triggle
Health reporter, BBC News

The effectiveness of anti-depressants is being questioned - this comes after prescriptions have hit record levels. Why are we so in love with happy pills?

Anti-depressant tablets
Anti-depressant prescription rates have soared

They have been dubbed the "It drug of the 1990s".

It is a phrase which conjures both positive and negative images - and that in itself perhaps best sums up the place the new generation of anti-depressants have in modern society.

On the one hand, supporters say they have made depression acceptable to talk about.

Whereas previous generations would have been told to keep a "stiff upper-lip", there is now easy access to a simple pill for the one in six people suffering from the condition at any one time.

But the increasing popularity of the likes of Prozac and Seroxat, which work by boosting levels of the mood controlling chemical serotonin in the brain, has come at a price, many say.

'Prozac nation'

Lib Dem Nick Clegg recently criticised the "Prozac nation" that he believes has developed with people all to ready to reach for the medicine cabinet.

On the back of the study questioning the drugs' effectiveness, mental health charities have put the boot in, blaming GPs for over-prescribing the drugs.

NHS drugs advisers have warned doctors not to rely on them as a first-line of defence and instead look to treat people with counselling and other talking therapies.

Our grandparents generation understood it was part of the tapestry of life that at times we will have to deal with disappointments
Dr Jim Kennedy, of the Royal College of GPs

But statistics suggest the warnings have not been heeded. Last year a record 16m prescriptions were issued - a 10% rise on the year before.

Doctors reject claims they are too quick to prescribe.

Dr Jim Kennedy, prescribing spokesman for the Royal College of GPs, says: "The problem many GPs face is that there are really long waiting list for talking therapies.

"And in some cases the depression is so bad that patients need the help of drugs to engage with the counselling. GPs are often in a very difficult situation."

Perception

But Dr Kennedy also believes changes in society have altered people's perception of depression.

"Our grandparents generation understood it was part of the tapestry of life that at times we will have to deal with disappointments and unhappiness whether it is because of bereavements, jobs or love affairs.

"They developed coping strategies, they had the British stiff upper-lip and, of course, that was not always the best way to cope.

"But we now have an expectation that we should never experience unhappiness. We want to medicalise it and with the internet people are more aware of what help is out there.

People say depression has increased, but is it just that we are recognising it more?
Andy Bell, of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health

"I am not saying the problems today do not matter, just that society has changed."

But others believe the changes are for the better.

Andy Bell, of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, agrees people have become more assertive.

But he adds: "This means they are taking more responsibility for their health. They are willing to talk about problems and seek treatment for depression and anxiety. That is a good thing.

"People say depression has increased, but is it just that we are recognising it more?"

However, Mr Bell does say that access to talking therapies must improve.

"There is definitely a problem there. The government is trying to do something, but the waits are just too long in many areas."

SEE ALSO
What is the best way to treat depression?
26 Feb 08 |  Have Your Say

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