The increasing uptake of anti-depressants across Europe in recent decades has coincided with a gradual decline in suicide rates over the same period, according to a new report published in PLoS.
Between 1995 and 2009, the use of antidepressants across Europe increased by almost 20 per cent per year on average, with a corresponding 0.8 per cent annual reduction in the suicide rate.
Researchers, including David McDaid from the London School of Economics and Political Science, say that data collected from 29 European countries over three decades provides “strong evidence” that anti-depressants are playing a key role in treatment strategies for depression.
However, other factors can also come into play, such as a country’s GDP, cultural mores and access to psychological services.
The report finds no consistent relationship between suicide rates and alcohol consumption, divorce, or employment rates.
Sweden, Norway and Slovakia have seen the largest growth in anti-depressant usage – 1000 per cent increase in Sweden’s case between 1980-2009 – while the lowest growths have been recorded in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bulgaria, France and Luxembourg.
The United Kingdom has recorded a five-fold increase (495 per cent) in the use of anti-depressants since 1991 and a 14 per cent fall in suicide rates over the same period.
Icelanders are the heaviest users of anti-depressants with previous studies suggesting that almost nine per cent of the population take daily doses of medication, compared to just four per cent in Romania.
While suicide rates have fallen across Europe, suicide still remains a major public health problem in the EU countries, accounting for 60,000 deaths per year.
Lithuania has the highest current suicide rate followed by Hungary, while Greece, Italy and Spain are at the other end of the spectrum, with suicide rates the lowest in the EU.
Mr McDaid, an LSE mental health policy researcher, said the data showed that suicide rates had decreased more in countries where there had been a spike in the use of anti-depressants on a regular basis.
“These findings underline the importance of the appropriate use of anti-depressants as part of routine care for people diagnosed with depression, therefore reducing the risk of suicide,” he said.
“The stigma surrounding anti-depressants has decreased in line with improved awareness of mental health problems over the past 30 years, more counselling services and safer medication options.
“Increased funding for mental health systems has also helped make anti-depressants more affordable and accessible,” Mr McDaid said.
“A decline in suicide rates cannot be linked directly to anti-depressants but the evidence in support of them – when used appropriately – is pretty compelling,” he added.
The findings of the study, Antidepressant utilization and suicide in Europe: an ecological multi-national study are published in the latest issue of the Public Library of Science (PLoS One).
London School of Economics and Political Science