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Staggering £70m bill for depression pills in Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black

Published 01/12/2016

Almost twice as much is spent on antidepressants here compared to England.
Almost twice as much is spent on antidepressants here compared to England.

The cost of treating depression in Northern Ireland topped a staggering £70million in the last five years.

Almost twice as much is spent on anti-depressants here compared to England. In the last year alone, £13.59m was shelled out on anti-depressants.

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That works out at roughly £7 per head of population in Northern Ireland - compared to a spend in England of just £4 per person.

The figures were released after an Assembly question by SDLP MLA Richie McPhillips.

Earlier this year the Belfast Telegraph revealed that one in every six people in Northern Ireland is battling depression.

Almost 300,000 were prescribed anti-depressants last year - including more than 500 children under the age of 16.

The number of children and teenagers given the drugs has increased year-on-year since 2012.

And the total number, of any age, reliant on the medication has jumped by nearly 10% in just two years.

Ulster Unionist health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson said the figures were hugely concerning.

"Year on year, the extent of prescribing anti-depressants, especially amongst young children, should be ringing alarm bells at the Department of Health," she said.

"We know that last year almost 300,000 were prescribed anti-depressants - including more than 500 children under the age of 16.

"These most recent figures do nothing to give confidence that local mental health services are stepping forward to meet the needs of people suffering from anxiety, depression and poor mental health."

The amount spent on anti-depressants each year varies slightly. In the 2014/15 financial year £13.79m was spent, down from the 2013/14 figure of £15.24m.

In 2012/13, £13.10m was spent and in 2011/12 the bill reached £16.71m.

Most was spent in the Northern Trust area each year, the figures show. By comparison, in the 12 months to April this year, £54m was spent in England on anti-depressants, £40m in Scotland and £21m in Wales.

These totals can only be accurately compared when divided by population totals for each region.

Per head of the population, Northern Ireland and Scotland both spent £7 per head, Wales spent £6 per head and England spent £4 per head.

Ms Dobson, an Upper Bann MLA, claimed there is a "total absence of strategic thinking when it comes to defeating depression".

She added: "Exploration and expansion of alternative therapies to prescription drugs, including specialist counselling services, should be a priority to help those who are often left to fight depression alone.

"These figures once again show the increasing need for greater public awareness and intervention services.

"We must see these put in place, especially specialist services for children and young people, before the mental health of our people deteriorates even further."

Previous Freedom of Information requests revealed that Diazepam had been dispensed in Northern Ireland more than 100,000 times in five months.

Some of the other most frequently prescribed prescription drugs included Fluoxetine, Citalopram, Amitriptyline, and Temazepam.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said mental health is one of the Health Minister Michelle O'Neill's key priorities.

"This is an ongoing effort in the context of many budgetary pressures that face health and social care," the department said.

"Improving access to psychological therapies does not necessarily mean that the need for medication will reduce. However, for some people it does provide an alternative to the need for reliance on medication."

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