Record numbers of people in England are now taking prescription drugs to help their mental health, according to official figures.

More than six million people were prescribed antidepressants in the three months up to September 2020 – a record high for England. This rise is thought to be a result of people finding it difficult to cope during the pandemic, with many feeling isolated, worried about their financial future, or grieving the loss of a loved one.

There has also been a reduction in the number of people referred to IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) for talking therapies such as counselling, with 250,000 fewer referrals in the six months to August 2020. Due to lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions, most counselling services are now delivered online rather than in person, and this has probably made it a less popular option than before the pandemic.

There are also fears that people are waiting longer to seek help for mental health issues, due to a reluctance to go to their GP or difficulties getting face-to-face appointments during the current crisis.

Lucy Schonegevel, Deputy Campaigns Director for the mental health charity Rethink, has warned there is a danger that antidepressants are being prescribed without any support for those taking them. She advocates that the use of prescription drugs to treat mental health issues should “go hand in hand” with therapy.

Fears medication is being prioritised over therapy

Concerns were also raised by Dr Esther Cohen-Tovée, Chair of the Division of Clinical Psychology at the British Psychological Society.

She told the Guardian: “I’m shocked and extremely concerned about the massive extent of the reduction in referrals for psychological help during a time of huge anxiety, stress and distress for the whole population.”

She added that this fall was even more concerning as the number of people being prescribed antidepressants had increased over the same period.

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