Millions of patients are wrongly diagnosed with depression and needlessly given antidepressant drugs when they are simply sad, a study warns.
Antidepressants are being handed out to people who are bereaved, suffering sexual problems or are unable to sleep, claims a scientific paper.
The number of people diagnosed with mental illnesses such as depression has doubled since 2002. It is believed more than five million people are now labelled depressed or suffering anxiety in the UK.
Chris Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at Liverpool University, claims in a new report that up to half of these patients have been misdiagnosed.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, the academic, who also works as a GP, said: “Over-diagnosis is now more common than under-diagnosis.”
“Over recent decades there has been an increasing tendency, especially in primary care, to diagnose depression in patients presenting with sadness or
distress and offer them antidepressant medication,” he wrote. “But these pills won’t work for people with mild depression, or who are sad, but they have side effects and we are seeing patients becoming reliant on drugs they do not need.”
He added the problems began in the Eighties, when qualifying symptoms for depression were lowered to include feeling sad or “down in the dumps” for two weeks, or appetite change, sleep disturbance, drop in libido and tiredness.
Dr Dowrick said these symptoms were so common that most people would have them at some point in their lives. Despite extensive research and calls from health professionals for the classification system to be revised, the worldwide boom in the prescription of antidepressants has continued.
In the UK, sales of antidepressants have increased at a rate of 10 per cent every year. Dr Dowrick and his team said drug companies had a part to play in the problem of over-diagnosis. He criticised their strategies for marketing drugs to treat mild depression and anxiety, encouraging them to be seen as conditions that required medication.
He said: “Often doctors do not know how effective the drugs are because they do not have full and accurate information on the research carried out by the pharmaceutical companies.
“Drug companies should be stopped from marketing antidepressant medication to physicians,” he wrote.
Mental health charities rejected his claim that depression is over-diagnosed.
Jenny Edwards, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “There is an increase in depression and anxiety that GPs are seeing because of the pressures people are facing from debt, unemployment and their effects on people’s relationships.
“Diagnosing this as mental illness can be a crucial first step to help people get assistance.”
A public accounts committee report revealed that drug companies routinely withhold results of clinical trials from doctors, leaving them poorly informed about how to treat patients.
This article first appeared on ‘The Telegraph’ on 5 January 2014.