Prescriptions of anti-anxiety medication have risen sharply – study

Researchers examined prescribing data from 176 GP surgeries in the UK.

22 March 2022

Prescriptions of anti-anxiety medication have risen “sharply” in recent years, a new study suggests.

There has also been a “substantial” increase in the prescription of antidepressants to combat anxiety in adults under the age of 25, researchers found.

The increases in prescribing could be down to better detection of anxiety, according to academics from the University of Bristol.

But they could also be due to people suffering more severe symptoms or a previously “unmet need”.

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, looked at prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications (called anxiolytics) across 176 GP surgeries in the UK caring for more than 2.5 million patients.

There were 546,154 “anxiolytic prescribing events”, and when plotted on a graph, this shows a steep incline in recent years.

Researchers said that prescription rates were “steady” between 2003 and 2008 then rose “sharply” until the end of the study period in 2018.

The team said that the rise in prescriptions was most likely to be explained by an increasing number of new patients starting treatment, rather than people already taking the drugs being prescribed more of them.

“Increases in incident prescribing for anxiety, especially for young adults, may reflect better detection of anxiety, increasing severity of symptoms or earlier unmet need,” they wrote.

“However, some of this prescribing is not based on robust evidence of effectiveness, and may contradict guidelines.

“It is known that once people have started taking antidepressants they often continue long term, and there is increasing evidence that this may be associated with unintended harms.”

They also said that the rise in prescribing of antidepressants for anxiety in adults under the age of 25 years has been “substantial” in recent years.

And while benzodiazepine – a type of sedative medication which can help with anxiety and insomnia – prescriptions fell over time, increases have been seen in those aged under 35.

The team also warned that in 2017, 44% of benzodiazepine prescriptions were longer than the recommended maximum of four weeks.

“Research is needed to improve understanding about why this is happening and to provide interventions that are acceptable and effective for young adults that can mitigate the growing reliance on pharmacotherapy for this age group,” the authors wrote.

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