The Brexit vote to leave Europe was followed by a surge in the number of antidepressants prescribed by family doctors, scientists revealed.
Researchers found that antidepressant prescribing in England rose by 13.4 per cent relative to other types of drug in the immediate aftermath of the ‘leave’ EU referendum victory in June 2016.
They say the trend, while open to interpretation, may be linked to the increased anxiety some people felt in the wake of the unexpected vote.
When the UK voted to leave the EU considerable uncertainty ensued as to how the result would affect the British economy and society.
Previous evidence suggests that major events can affect a nation’s mental health, and the researchers wanted to find out if the Brexit vote might have had a similar impact.
They compared official monthly prescribing figures for antidepressants for all 326 voting areas in England with other classes of drugs for conditions less likely to be immediately affected by changes in mood.
These included drugs to treat iron deficiency anaemia, gout, insulins, thyroid problems, drugs to lower blood glucose and blood fats, and muscle relaxants.
The researchers looked at prescribing patterns specifically for the month of July for every year between 2011 and 2016, to capture the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, and across each of those years to see if there were any trends.
To ensure they could compare the different types of drugs, they calculated a ‘defined daily dose’ (DDD) reached by quantifying the number of milligrams prescribed – derived from the number of pills in a box, multiplied by the strength of each pill.
The 326 voting areas were home to an average of 36.6 family doctor practices, with an average population of 169,534 people in each area.
The number of DDDs prescribed was then divided by each voting area’s population to estimate average prescribing levels per head, and these figures were then combined with the referendum results for each area.
Analysis of the data, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, showed that before the referendum, DDDs for antidepressants rose during the month of July year on year, as did prescribing for insulins and gout, iron deficiency anaemia, and blood fat and glucose drugs.
In the month after the referendum, DDDs for antidepressants continued to rise, albeit at a slower pace, but those for the other drugs fell, having experienced a period of growth. The only exception were prescriptions for muscle relaxants, which had already been in decline.
The researchers calculated that after the referendum the volume of antidepressants prescribed increased by 13.4 per cent relative to the other classes of drugs studied.
The researchers pointed out that it was an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause.
They said antidepressants aren’t prescribed to everyone, so the results can’t be taken to mean that the mood worsened across the whole of England, nor can they rule out that mood actually improved for some people
But study author Dr Sotiris Vandoros said: “Overall, while our findings point towards a relative increase in antidepressant prescribing as measured by DDDs per capita, results should be interpreted with caution.
“Further research is needed to examine whether there is any short-term relationship between the referendum result and mental health.”
But Dr Vandoros, of King’s College London and Harvard University in the US, added: “Our study focused on an event that was unexpected, leading to an immediate shock.
“From a more general perspective, this paper shows that shocks nationally can affect health, and that uncertainty about, and expectations of, future effects can have an impact on health in the short term.
”Policies supporting mental health should be intensified in periods of uncertainty.”
Dr Vandoros said policy makers may underestimate the potential costs of Brexit if they focus just on the impact on the economy or immigration, and ignore changes in psychological well-being that may ultimately affect the economy and social cohesion.