One in six people on anti-depressant drugs, including 550 children, shock figures reveal
One in every six people in Northern Ireland is battling depression, shocking figures have revealed.
Almost 300,000 were prescribed anti-depressants last year - including more than 500 children under the age of 16.
The number of people reliant on medication has jumped by nearly 10% in just two years.
The figures, released by Health Minister Simon Hamilton, lay bare the alarming extent of mental illness in society.
Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson said: "I find these figures quite frankly staggering. The extent of prescribing anti-depressants, especially amongst young children, should be ringing alarm bells at the Department of Health."
In the 12 months to last April, a total of 299,946 people in Northern Ireland were prescribed medication.
That is equivalent to one in every six of our 1.8 million population. The number of sufferers has risen significantly compared to 2012/13, when 274,770 were receiving anti-depressants.
The details were disclosed in response to an Assembly question from Ms Dobson.
Shockingly, the most recent figure includes around 550 children under the age of 16, and a further 5,500 teenagers aged between 16 and 19.
The number of children and teenagers given the drugs has increased year-on-year since 2012.
Mr Hamilton's response also discloses that the bill for anti-depressants topped £13.8m last year. Of the five health trusts, the Northern Trust spent the most - over £3.6m.
Around 111,000 people were also prescribed anti-anxiety drugs here last year. Some may have received both anti-depressants and anti-anxiety treatment.
Mrs Dobson said the findings "set a worrying trend for the future". "These figures really do call into question the lack of strategic approach being taken by the health service towards defeating depression," she said.
"As a member of the Stormont health committee, I have met with a number of local charities who are fighting to help people affected by depression, including Aware.
"I know that overcoming depression can change lives and encourage people to seek early help and alternative therapies, and I have also been asking questions about the availability of counselling services as an alternative to prescription drugs. We know there is a direct link between our poor mental health and the legacy of the Troubles. These figures very clearly show the increasing need for greater public awareness and intervention services.
"These must be put in place, especially the development of specialist services for children and young people, before the mental health of people across Northern Ireland deteriorates even further."
The figures emerged days after Mark Allen, one of the world's top snooker players, spoke out about his own battle with depression.
The Northern Ireland star described how at times the illness left him unable to get out of bed for days.
"You get into your own bubble and you don't want to get involved with anyone, really," he said. "A lot of things contributed to it and I'm sure that being a snooker player and being on my own all the time probably triggered it."
Allen added: "The amount of days I would just curl up in bed and watch movies all day, didn't go to practice, didn't socialise with anyone and didn't see my family at all was pretty scary, looking back on it."
Other well-known people to suffer from depression include former Northern Ireland footballer Neil Lennon and ex-UTV star Lynda Bryans.
According to guidelines issued by the NHS to doctors, anti-depressant drugs should not be used routinely in mild depression. The guidelines tell doctors that psychological therapy should be considered first.
However, a trial of anti-depressant therapy may be considered in cases unresponsive to psychological treatments or in patients with psychosocial or medical problems.
Drug treatment for mild depression may also be considered in patients with a history of moderate or severe depression.
Edward Gorringe from the mental health charity MindWise said drug treatment wasn't always the answer.
"Drugs have a place in treating some individuals but before medication is prescribed a range of other approaches should be explored such as talking therapies, peer support, family support, exercise and diet," he said.
"Drugs may on occasion be useful in supporting these therapies but should rarely, if ever, be the first recourse."
Health Minister Simon Hamilton said: "Common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can often effectively be managed through psychological therapies, sometimes known as talking therapies, rather than medication and a range of services are currently provided, including psychology, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and trauma therapy.
"Also in responding to the increasing demand for psychological therapies, the HSC board is currently establishing primary care talking therapy hubs in each trust locality for treatment of common mental health needs.
"These hubs will provide a wide range of low intensity talking therapies (counselling, interpersonal therapy, etc) and lifestyle coaching and offer a real alternative to drug therapy."