Anxiety crept up on Oludayo Asuni until she was having a panic attack a day, and texts and calls from friends and family were increasingly going unanswered. As her world began to unravel, she was prescribed antidepressants.
The 23-year-old university student, whose family come from Kent, is among hundreds of thousands of people who started taking medication during the pandemic, or went back on to prescription drugs to tackle re-emerging mental health problems.
Data show that more than 6 million people in England received antidepressants in the three months to September, the highest figure on record.
The number of people referred to talking therapies fell by 250,000 in the six months to August, compared with the same period last year.
Asuni was given the option of online counselling when she first started experiencing problems, but it didn’t help. “What I found hard about lockdown was the confinement,” she said.
Lockdown increased feelings of anxiety she was having about her degree course, and with classes having stopped due to lockdown measures she worried about completing her dissertation. “This is my whole degree,” she thought, “and if I cannot do my work, what will I do?”
Antonia, from London, who did not want to give her surname, said quarantine and isolation also compounded her problems.
“I have always been a fairly anxious person, but I would not say anything outside the norm,” she said, noting that she had just departed a job due to many of the issues raised during the Black Lives Matter protests.
“I found it hard to move on from that, even though I was in a new job. Things that would normally help, such as going to the gym, didn’t because it was closed, and doing things with friends was hard.”
She could no longer get out of bed, lost her appetite and was prescribed antidepressants by her doctor. “I was told I could have counselling in conjunction with it, but I have had counselling in the past and it got to the point where I needed something. I was not feeling OK.”
James Leeland, 29, said he went back on antidepressants for the third time around last May.
He described his depression as being like a bubble forming around him, as he got overwhelming feelings of low self-esteem. “I got in contact with a doctor and I explained how I was feeling,” he said. “I was after a counsellor to discuss it, because this time around there was no trigger but lots of external factors causing extra stress, like the pandemic and I had a newborn child.
“But with things how they are and counselling limited at the moment … after a lot of back and forth with the doctor, that is when I thought ‘I will try tablets’.” Leeland has since come off the drugs and has found talking to his family more helpful.
Christopher Dowrick, a university professor and practising GP in Liverpool, is unsurprised by the rise in antidepressant use, saying that for many people mental health problems have got worse in recent months. He added that there was little alternative for family doctors other than to prescribe medication as most services went online.
“I think GPs were more likely to prescribe medication in cases they would not normally during peak lockdown … As a GP you want to help as much as you can within the limits put around you,” he said.
“I am not ‘anti’ antidepressants, I think they are useful for people with more severe and persistent depression and anxiety … but for most people who have milder symptoms and problems, there are a lot of other ways of helping, whether that is family support or exercise, or psychotherapy.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.