The number of prescriptions written for antidepressants in wealthy countries has doubled in the past 20 years. This increase is mostly due to people staying on antidepressants for a long time. There are now many people who have been on these drugs for several years and feel fairly well, but are unsure whether they still benefit from taking them.

Many people who have had depression continue to take antidepressants for years for fear that if they stop, they might have a relapse. Most studies of antidepressants and relapse have been done in people taking the medication for less than eight months. We wanted to know whether antidepressant treatment was still effective when people have been taking the pills for several years.

Our study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that remaining on antidepressants long-term reduced the risk of a relapse, but many people were able to come off them safely.

Our study recruited 478 people who had been receiving long-term antidepressant treatment, 70% of whom had been taking antidepressants for more than three years. All the patients had a history of at least two episodes of depression, had been taking their antidepressants for a minimum of nine months, and felt well enough to consider stopping the pills.

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Written by Gemma Lewis Lecturer, Psychiatry, UCL and Glyn Lewis Professor of Epidemiological Psychiatry, UCL

Article published by The Conversation on the 30th September 2021