The Rise of Antidepressants

The BBC ran a news piece today about the massive rise in use of antidepressants in England and Wales over the last 10 years. And depending on which study you believe between 1 in 11 and 1 in 6 people in England are now on an antidepressant (though we must remember, that antidepressants can be used for other conditions like pain management and irritable bowel syndrome – IBS). In the USA, antidepressants are now the second biggest group of prescribed drugs.

 

So, what should we conclude? Well, firstly, it is good news that it has become much more acceptable for people to talk about struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It is good that people are going to see their GP when they feel depressed and anxious, rather than just trying to cope with it. So, we mustn’t now necessarily insinuate that the increase in prescriptions is a bad thing, because firstly, that can heap shame on those who are taking them, which is unhelpful at so many levels and also, we need to remember that there is actually a good evidence-base behind anti-depressant medication. They really do work – I’ve seen that again and again for my patients, who choose to go on them, and for sure, I would love to see more psychological therapies available on the NHS, as an alternative or as an adjunct to medication. Waiting lists are currently far too long for such therapeutic interventions and many people choose medication because they cannot afford to pay for therapy or indeed to wait several months for the help they need. We don’t report the use of antihypertensives to control blood pressure negatively and so we need to be careful about taking a dim view of medications which help improve mental health.

 

However, when so many in our society are struggling with anxiety and depression to this extent (and it’s really positive that we’re talking about it and that people are getting help), we need to ask ourselves some big questions about the root causes of this and what we can do as a nation to improve our mental health. One of all time favourite quotes is that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he says:

 

“There comes a point, where we have to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

 

So, in the rest of this blog, I’m going to explore some root causes, whilst recognising that for many people, endogenous depression (i.e. a neurochemical cause in the brain) IS the root cause, and therefore their depression may not have any other roots to it.  I’ve also done this vlog (which I did for mental health awareness week) about what depression is and some of the things that can help.

 

But in looking for root causes, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve written on this blog a number of times about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the impact of Trauma on our lives. So many of us live with unhealed pain, which over time eats away at us and makes it harder for us to remain mentally well. Many of us go through trauma and are able to survive it better than others, but that is because we’ve had other things in our lives at the time which have helped us navigate the storm. However, we need to recognise more the massive reality of trauma in our lives, so that we can face it, and find healing together. This is one of the reasons why I’ve co-written ‘The Little Book of ACEs’ with some friends and colleagues, here in Morecambe Bay. There is a free PDF version of it, if you click here. You may also find this inspiring talk by Jaz Ampur-Farr, herself a survivor of significant trauma, really helpful. Jaz is joining us in Morecambe Bay very soon, to explore some of these issues.

 

We must also be brave enough to recognise that we have a complex corporate history, which shapes our identity and we have a society, which is by no means equal or fair. Prof Bev Skeggs, and Prof Imogen Tyler, two of the foremost sociology professors in the UK/world right now, are writing so powerfully about this. It’s well worth digging into their work, and I am so excited that they are here at Lancaster University, in Morecambe Bay, and will be exploring some of these issues with us in more depth over the next few months. We cannot underestimate how injustice, poverty, and inequality impacts our mental health.

 

Stress has a hugely negative impact on our mental health. Our work patterns have become so manic and busy and our weekends often so full, that we have forgotten how to rest, how to stop, how to switch off and take notice of the beauty all around us – of the things which really matter. This takes a huge toll on us. The girl guides took part in a fascinating survey about what causes them stress and feeds mental health issues. The number one factor was the pressure they feel to do well at school. Our very systems and the treadmill of the exams are making our young people unwell. The idea of slowing down and learning to switch off from our ever faster, consumerist world, seems laughable to so many of us – and yet I would argue that this is one of the greatest causes of our ill-being. We have created an economy which treats people like fodder for the economic machine and is literally killing the planet around us – another underlying huge but often unrecognised cause of our stress. We must rebuild an economy based on wellbeing. It’s why I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Prof Katherine Trebeck to Morecambe Bay in the next few weeks.

 

Another causative factor of our growing mental illness in society, perhaps caused by all the busyness, is loneliness and isolation. Despite our many frantic activities, and social networking, 20% of the UK population say they feel lonely, but that jumps to between 50 and 75% of people over 75. We were made to be in relationship. When we are disconnected from community, we become sad and low. We need to remember how to love people, and also to be loved. Our disconnection is leading to increased separation, suspicion of others and a rise in racism and hatred. This is in no way good for our mental health. Valerie Kaur explores this so powerfully in her incredible TED talk on revolutionary love. We need to reimagine a society in which relationship is at the core of our being together. Hilary Cottam’s work is so vital in helping us recover this. Again, Hilary is coming to the Bay in the coming months to help us dig deeper as a community into these ideas.

 

I am so glad that we are talking about mental health so much more seriously. I am glad that people are able to take medication that can help them and that the stigma is being broken. I am hopeful though that we can recognise together just how broken our society is, and how our current political and economic systems (including our beloved health system) cannot fix this. Perhaps, in learning to be together in the dark, when we cannot see the light, wrestling with the complexity of our pain, healing our trauma and reimagining our future, we might find that our need for medication decreases.

 

 

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Goldfish and What They Teach Us!

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to Prof Sandro Galea, from Boston State University talking on the subject: “What do guns, obesity and opiates have in common?!” It was an amazing walk through the world of epidemiology – and the answer? Well – all three things are hugely important problems, they are all complex and therefore simple solutions cannot fix them! 

 

Virchow, one of the earliest and most influential thinkers in the realm of Public Health famously said, “Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.” Sandro Galea takes this idea and modifies this slightly, suggesting that, in fact, politics IS health on a large scale. In other words, if we don’t get health and wellbeing (of ALL people and the planet) written into every policy, then we will never tackle the huge issues of health inequality and environmental disaster. 

 

Sandro gave an amusing analogy about his pet goldfish. He told us that every morning, he goes downstairs and sees his lovely goldfish swimming in their goldfish bowl. He cares for them, makes sure they are well fed, doing their exercises, having time for mindfulness to build resilience and ensures their contraceptive needs are catered for. Sadly, one morning, he goes downstairs and finds all his goldfish are dead. He’d forgotten to make sure the water was clean. The fish were, in effect, swimming in a cesspit (needless to ask whether or not fish are meant for a glass bowl!).

 

He has developed several principles when it comes to thinking about epidemiology. Principle number 5 states: “Small changes in ubiquitous causes may result in more substantial change in the health of populations than larger changes in rare causes.” His goldfish illustration shows that the goldfish are surrounded by water and everything they do is influenced by the QUALITY of the water they live in; therefore water is a ubiquitous factor in influencing the fish and needs to taken into consideration EVERY TIME we want to improve the lives of the fish. His point is this: if we don’t care for the environment and the external factors that give us life and wellbeing, then our other little interventions are futile. The problem is that we spend so much of our time making interventions that we can measure and feel successful about, like giving people statins, getting kids to run a mile a day, encouraging breast feeding, getting people through the ED in a timely manner or even giving them smart technology to nudge them towards better health outcomes, but we pay little attention to tackling the much bigger issues of poverty, poor housing, or air pollution.

 

The biomedical model for tackling the huge issues of population health has failed and will continue to fail. Our politics and economic model is broken! We have simply not written health and wellbeing into every aspect of our lives and have developed patterns of education and work that are actually doing more harm than good and driving health inequalities and the health of our planet in the wrong direction. Therefore, where there is evidence that policy is actually making health inequalities worse, or damaging the environment, we must challenge them with the evidence base, and plain common sense!

 

I do believe that communities can together make a massive difference, and increasingly I recognise just how vital policy is in helping us shape a just and fair society and in stewarding an environment, which is sustainable for the future. Policy and law can be love-fuelled and compassionate, and they need to become so, because politics IS health and we need to re-imagine it as such.

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Health and Society – Can we make a Difference? Part 1 – Economics

Tweet If we want to make a difference to health and wellbeing in society, tackling health inequalities, whilst protecting the health and wellbeing of the environment and creating a fair and just save for humanity…..we have to ask ourselves some searching questions about whether or not our current economic models are really fit for purpose. [Continue Reading …]

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Does Design Care?

Tweet Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting in some conversations at ‘Imagination’, Lancaster University as part of a conference, hosted by Prof Paul Rogers, entitled ‘Does Design Care?’ It has left me with much to think about in terms of how the health and social care system is currently being redesigned here [Continue Reading …]

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We Have a Power Problem!

Tweet NHS – we have a problem! This blog forms a hiatus in the middle of a 4 blog mini-series about what I call the four rings of leadership (in the context of healthcare). I have been musing on some statements made at the IHI conference in London, Quality 2017, and before I go any [Continue Reading …]

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