Recent data shows that the number of prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants in England went up from 6.75 million in 2017 to almost 7.1 million in 2018, which is almost double the figure from 2008. At a distance, this new data suggests there is an increasing prevalence of depression in society.

But if we delve deeper, we cannot say that because more people are taking anti-depressants, more people are depressed. It could also be argued that society is becoming more aware of mental health problems and are are choosing to recognise and seek support and treatment. Another, more sinister suggestion, is that medication has become the ‘go-to’ solution for depression, rather than talking therapies and other interventions. 

The number of prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants in England went up from 6.75 million in 2017 to almost 7.1 million in 2018.

So, which is it? Are we more aware of our mental health? Are we overprescribing medication? Or is society becoming more depressed? Let’s explore.

Are we more aware?

Historically, mental health has been stigmatised, with patients being subjected to a range of inhumane treatments. It's therefore not surprising that a large amount of people suffering from mental health problems kept it quiet for fear of what would happen to them and continue to do so for fear of being labelled. Many people still worry about the consequences of disclosing. 

"We are not getting more depressed as a society, but instead more socially aware and accepting".

But over the last decade, we are become more aware of the prevalence and impact of mental health difficulties than ever before, which is something that should be celebrated. People have begun to share their stories and raise awareness, and national campaigns have highlighted the need for better understanding and care. Because of this increased awareness, people are feeling more able to seek medical advice and support. This suggests that we are not becoming more depressed as a society but are instead choosing to not struggle alone and make positive steps towards improving our mental health.

Are we overprescribing?

Treatments for depression lie both in therapeutic and medical intervention, the use of which depends on the severity of the condition. However, a medical prescription is currently the most common outcome of a GP appointment, which is problematic as it not only overlooks life experiences that contributed to the development of depression or mental health issues, but it also brings the risk of people becoming dependent on medication which they may not need.

Medication is often considered an ‘easy option’ when facing signs of depression. This is because therapeutic interventions are largely inconsistent across the country and not available to all. Also many people are not aware of all the interventions that can improve our mental health - including what we can do personally (such as improve our diet and engage in exercise).

Only 60% of people with depression are estimated to be receiving the support they need. A prescription is an easy and quick intervention to prescribe. Perhaps it's easy to think that at least the patient is getting some form of support and that their symptoms will not worsen to the point of needing therapeutic intervention when there are few resources available.

Are we getting more depressed?

It has been estimated that 4 – 10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime, and factors linked to depression include substance abuse, socioeconomic circumstances and loneliness, which all (unfortunately) have a consistent presence in society. However, the number of people now suffering from depression is estimated to be 10 times more than the number in 1945, suggesting that depression is in fact on the rise. So, what has changed to cause this?

4 – 10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime.

Possibilities for the increasing prevalence of depression lie include the technological advancements of this digital era. For example, there has been the development of social media platforms, increased use of which has been linked to a higher risk of depressive symptoms. This is due to people having negative interactions and distorted views of other people’s lives, making their own seem less valuable. Another possibility is the pressure to look ‘perfect’, an unhealthy ideal often promoted by television and film. With the average Briton now spending almost 10 years of their life watching television, it wouldn’t be surprising if it is indeed having an adverse impact on our mental health. These technological advancements therefore provide some backing to the awful idea that we, as a society, are getting more depressed. But with this in mind - and noting that people in 1945 were less depressed (which seems unreal because they had just survived World War II), it is hard to beleive technology is completely to blame. 

Which is it?

The optimist in me wants to say that we are becoming more aware and accepting of mental health disorders, and this is encouraging more people to seek help. However, there is undeniably an increasing dependence on medication as a solution. Technology is having some impact - and I understand this personally - but people in 1945 surely had it a lot worse? So I choose to think that we are not getting more depressed as a society, but instead more socially aware and accepting.