When the time comes to end a course of antidepressants, many people face concerns about what’s next. So we’re laying out what to expect
“I have experienced anxiety since childhood and developed depression in my 20s, after the birth of my second child. Following my divorce, I became more affected, at times struggling to cope with my work which involved travelling around the UK delivering training in, ironically, mental health and exercise. Eventually, I went to my GP, who recommended antidepressants and counselling.”
Sarah Bolitho’s story is likely to sound familiar to many. In the UK, the latest NHS statistics from January to March 2021 show that there were 20.2 million antidepressant drugs prescribed, a 1% decrease from 20.5 million items in the previous quarter, and a 3% increase from 19.6 million items for the same quarter in 2019/20. They’re incredibly common, and yet mental health stigma means that there are often unanswered questions about the experience floating around.
One such question is what to expect when you end a course of antidepressants? The length of time an individual will need to take antidepressants varies from person to person, and while one may take them for up to six months, another may continue to take them for five years, or more. But how can you tell when the right time to stop taking them is for you? What should you expect? And how can you do it safely? Read on to find out. But, first, we need to take some time to get to know what we’re dealing with.
What are antidepressants?
“Antidepressants are medications prescribed for depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some other mental and physical health conditions,” The Royal College of Psychiatrists tells us. “There are almost 30 different kinds of antidepressants. We don’t know for certain how antidepressants work, but they affect the activity of certain chemicals in our brains called neurotransmitters. These pass signals from one brain cell to another. The neurotransmitters most affected by antidepressants are serotonin and noradrenaline.”
And antidepressants can make a huge difference in individuals’ lives. A six-year study by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, that looked at the results of more than 500 trials, found that around 60% of people respond to the drugs by two months, with about a 50% reduction in their symptoms.
When is the right time to stop?
From week five of taking them, Sarah recalls feeling more positive, and she noticed that her symptoms were reducing. She had also started counselling at this point, and was gradually starting to identify areas in her life that needed to change, and develop new coping skills. She continued to take the medication for about three years before she decided to speak to her GP.
“I was concerned about coming off the medication, as I was not sure if I would experience depression again, or what the effects of withdrawing would be,” she shares. “I am thankful that I was given good advice to do this slowly – I’m so glad I took the time, as it gave me the confidence that my symptoms were gone and that I could cope.”
According to The Royal College of Psychi