The number of antidepressant prescriptions reached its highest ever during 2020 as the pandemic cut access to in-person support.
Revealed by an investigation from The Guardian, the numbers show that over 6 million people in England were prescribed antidepressants in the three months up to September last year.
The number reflects the shift of patients from face-to-face support to online alternatives forced by the pandemic, either due to restrictions on indoor meetings, or patients being reluctant to attend them for fear of exposure or guilt of adding unnecessary pressure to the health system.
In total, 601,530 referrals were made to NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services in the 6 months leading up to the end of August which, according to latest data from NHS Digital, is 28% lower than the same period in 2019.
Acute case appointments in the 7 months to the end of September also fell, both in first appointments (26%) and in hospital attendances (9%).
The fall in rates of in-person counselling is a concern in cases where immediate intervention is needed, with the more time a person takes to access support potentially leading to more severe symptoms.
Speaking to The Guardian, chair of the British Psychological Society’s division of clinical psychology, Dr Esther Cohen-Tovée, expressed her concern about the figures: “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. This is even more concerning when there has been a huge increase in the prescription of antidepressants.
“[The impacts of a lack of psychological support will add] to the existing and profound direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic itself … hampering our efforts towards recovery for individuals, families and communities”.
As COVID-19 vaccination programmes begin to roll out across the country, hopes of the pandemic coming to a close have grown. But with them has come a growing concern of an incoming 'mental health crisis' as reports have consistently highlighted substantial increases in mental health issues during 2020.
In July, the Office of National Statistics reported a doubling in depression rates, while rates of mental health issues among men, students, senior staff and workers, healthcare staff and pharmacists have all increased.
In Scotland in particular, mental health services and funding has recently been the subject of extensive scrutiny from the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Freedom of Information legislation has revealed a worrying number of vacancies in NHS senior mental health positions as well as significant numbers of work days lost among school staff due to mental health concerns – all while the country experiences its highest mental health inpatient rates in two decades.