Background: Antidepressant prescribing has been increasing in England. Studies in other countries suggest that while this may be associated with reduced suicide rates, it may also be associated with increased fatal poisoning from antidepressant drugs. We therefore conducted an ecological study to assess the association between prescription rates for antidepressants and suicide or fatal antidepressant-related poisoning in England.
Methods: The Office for National Statistics provided information on the number of suicides, antidepressant-related poisoning deaths and populations for England between 1993 and 2002. The Department of Health supplied data on prescriptions for all antidepressants dispensed in England. Associations between prescriptions and deaths were assessed using Spearman's rank correlation coefficient.
Results: There were 46,747 suicides, 3,987 deaths involving tricyclic antidepressants and 430 involving selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and other antidepressants. Increased antidepressant prescribing was statistically associated with a fall in suicide rates (Spearman's rs = -0.73, p = 0.02) and fatal poisoning involving tricyclic antidepressants (rs = -0.64, p = 0.05). In contrast, increased prescribing of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and other antidepressants was statistically associated with an increase in fatal poisoning involving these drugs (rs = 0.99, p < 0.001).
Conclusion: Increased prescribing of antidepressants may indicate improved diagnosis and treatment of depression in primary care. Our analysis suggests that this was accompanied by lower suicide rates. A decrease in poisoning deaths involving tricyclic antidepressants may suggest a change in preference for using serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other antidepressant drugs for high-risk patients. This may also partially explain the increase in deaths involving these drugs. Due to the ecological nature of the design, we cannot say conclusively whether reduced suicide rates are a direct consequence of increased antidepressant prescribing rates. To confirm these associations, individual level data on prescribing and suicide is needed.