Excessive Prescription of Anti-Depressants in Australia

Excessive Prescription of Anti-Depressants in Australia

Is it a symptom of a more pessimistic, anxious and less optimistic culture?

For several years, I have queried the very high and growing prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs in Australia. When I mention that one in five Australians is on these medications, and that Australia ranks in the top 3 per capita for such prescriptions, many express surprise. Almost always, someone shares a personal story with me.

The editorial titled "Anti-depressant pill-popping may be ineffective" in The Australian accentuates this worry and matches many of my concerns. It highlights, "The fact that psychiatrists are calling for a national review into the overprescription of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) shows all is far from well with Australians’ mental health and wellbeing. One in seven of the population is taking SSRIs. Aside from the $635m cost to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, psychiatrists are concerned that hundreds of thousands of people may be on the medications unnecessarily."

The rate of prescriptions has doubled in the past decade.

More than 32 million SSRI prescriptions were issued in 2021, three-quarters by General Practitioners.

The average duration of treatment is four years, despite clinical guidelines recommending that the drugs be taken for six to 12 months or up to two years for patients at risk of relapse. 

Several factors might contribute to this surge in prescriptions:

  • Immediate Solutions: In an era where quick results are desired, medications offer an expedient solution to complex emotional states, sidelining the effort required for therapeutic or lifestyle changes.

  • Diagnostic Trends: The boundaries defining mental health disorders have broadened, potentially leading to the over-pathologization of typical emotional responses.

  • Societal Pressures: Rapid societal shifts and technological advancements could elevate stress levels, leading more individuals to seek medical interventions.

  • Pharmaceutical Influence: The robust marketing strategies of the pharmaceutical industry might also be influencing this trend.

But at the heart of this discourse lies a deeper existential inquiry: What constitutes 'normal' emotional responses in today's world? Should emotions like grief over losing a loved one, anger over injustice, or frustration from life's challenges be medicated away? Scissortail Hospice Chaplain John T. Catrett, III, writing on "Steps to lessen depression", advocates, "Hang around with friends and loved ones, who are optimistic and upbeat in their attitude. Depressed individuals need a lot of encouragement. Positive people can distract one from “stinking-thinking” negative people. Cheerful people can focus upon the optimistic side of life and the beauty of living in a wonderful world."

Christy Roberts, who co-heads our grief and optimism project, said, "Overprescribing isn't just a problem in the pharmaceutical industry. It's deeply rooted in our medical training and culture. To address this issue, we must revisit and reshape these fundamental aspects of healthcare."

Read More on Grief and Optimism

Undoubtedly, there are genuine cases where medical intervention becomes necessary. However, a blanket approach to emotional discomfort, where pills become the default response, can undermine our innate human capacity to cope, grow, and evolve through experiences.

As Christy elaborates, "Numbing emotional pain isn't healing; it's avoidance. Emotions are an integral part of being human. Let's learn to process them, not suppress them. When we numb the pain, we dull the joy, love, and optimism too!"

At the Centre, we recommend exercises such as "My Optimism Superpower" and "Imagine My Best Self". We also host popular workshops at conferences, workplaces, and schools. Through these endeavours, we empower individuals to envision and build a positive future for themselves, Australia, and the world.

In conclusion, while there is a place for medication in managing severe and clinical mental health conditions, we must tread carefully. The journey to understanding and managing our emotions should not be bypassed with a pill but embraced as an integral aspect of the human experience. Australia and the world must reassess the balance between medical intervention and emotional resilience.


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