Clare Gerada defended the Royal College of Psychiatrists on the Today programme this morning against a complaint (of which I was one of the signatories) that the College is minimising the significance of antidepressant discontinuation problems (see Council for Evidenced-based Psychiatry (CEP) press release). There doesn't seem to be a dispute that antidepressant discontinuation problems occur (eg. see previous post) - Clare Gerada said in about a third of patients - and can be prolonged (see another previous post), but the issue seems to be whether they resolve for the vast majority of patients within two weeks. I don't think the evidence supports that view.
There is a history of doctors thinking they know better about antidepressant discontinuation problems than the public (see my book chapter). The Defeat Depression campaign was a five-year national programme launched in January 1992 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in association with the Royal College of General Practitioners. A door-to-door survey of public opinion was undertaken to obtain baseline data before the campaign started and most of the people questioned in the sample, that is 78%, thought that antidepressants were addictive. This finding caused some consternation amongst those running the campaign, because, as far as they were concerned, the public was misinformed on this issue. Part of the education programme, therefore, was to teach doctors that patients should be told clearly when antidepressants are first prescribed that discontinuing treatment in due course will not be a problem. Now they seem to be saying that it may be a problem but symptoms generally won't last long.
The first official recognition in the literature that SSRI antidepressants can cause discontinuation problems was in a BMJ editorial in 1998, which suggested they were preventable and simple to treat. The same authors only two years later acknowledged that discontinuation symptoms are common in a letter to the Lancet. I agree there is little evidence of physical addiction, in the sense that the body gets addicted to SSRIs, but commonsense understanding of the word also includes psychological dependence, and despite what the Defeat Depression campaign said, the public knew, even if doctors did not, that taking antidepressants can become a habit.
Doctors did not use their common sense to realise that discontinuing a drug that is thought to improve mood may cause problems - technically called a nocebo, or negative placebo, response. Antidepressants are likely to be habit forming, so however much the medical profession may declare that they are not primarily reinforcing like psychostimulants, the public has always understood that there may be difficulties in discontinuing antidepressants. The general public might reasonably have expected that psychiatrists, who are supposed to be specialists in disorders of the mind, would recognise psychological dependence, base their advice on clinical experience, and use their common sense.
I have always encouraged CEP to focus on psychological aspects of prescribed drug dependence (see eg. previous post). I was even critical of the RCPsych leaflet (see another previous post) that has caused such disquiet, not least because it's been taken down from the College website before it's been properly reviewed, even though I thought it was generally a helpful leaflet.
By the way, from the interview today, Clare Gerada, like her husband (see post), doesn't seem to believe in the placebo amplification hypothesis of apparent antidepressant efficacy, and I'm not sure why .