Activities such as art classes could be recommended as an alternative to medication for patients in England, as part of a major initiative to reduce the number of people becoming dependent on prescription drugs.

New National Health Service guidelines will put in place facilities to help people coming off the long-term use of prescription medicine and advise general practitioners to review patients’ medication regimes.

The Times newspaper quotes figures showing that in the past year, 8.4 million adults in England were prescribed antidepressants, which is 8 percent higher than in 2019, the year when a government review took place, resulting in the new advice. About 23 percent of women and 12 percent of men are on antidepressants.

There is little to suggest that antidepressant medication is truly addictive but withdrawal symptoms can mean some people find it difficult to stop taking it, according to experts.

“Weird conflation of painkillers and antidepressants here, given the former can be addictive and the latter aren’t,” tweeted Jacob Aron, news editor of New Scientist magazine, referring to The Times article.

“Medicines offer a fantastic range of tools for NHS staff to provide care that can be positively life-changing,” said Tony Avery, the national clinical director for prescribing at NHS England.

“However, we need to be alert to the risks of some medicines, and the framework we are publishing today empowers local services to work with people to ensure they are being effectively supported when a medicine is no longer providing overall benefit.”

According to the Neuroscience News website, abrupt withdrawal of antidepressants is likely to make a user feel unwell, so a gradual reduction is better. Symptoms of what is known as antidepressant discontinuation syndrome can include lethargy, headaches, insomnia and altered moods, and in most cases are resolved in two or three weeks.

Therapeutic benefit

The NHS report drew particular attention to projects carried out in the county of Gloucestershire. One service, called Art on Prescription, was described as “a form of social prescription and is a nonclinical intervention delivered by art practitioners for therapeutic benefit”.

Another, a course called Artlift, begins with “a personalized ‘What Matters To You’ conversation prior to the start of the program and (we) agree a personalized support plan and goals with each participant”, and reported 83 percent improvement in participants’ mental wellbeing.

So-called social prescribing has been suggested before.

In September 2018, then-health secretary Matt Hancock said: “The evidence increasingly shows that activities like social clubs, art, ballroom dancing, and gardening can be more effective than medicines for some people and I want to see an increase in that sort of social prescribing.”

However, a study at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in October concluded that having monitored 6,500 participants taking part in social prescribing activities for as long as two years, there was little impact on health.

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