The current NICE guidance on antidepressant withdrawal is ‘misleading doctors’ about the severity of effects on patients, researchers have claimed.
According to current guidelines, withdrawal symptoms when stopping antidepressants are ‘usually mild and self-limiting over about one week’.
But an analysis of existing research, including NICE’s own evidence base, concluded the claims about the length and severity of withdrawal symptoms were not supported.
Instead, the study comparing 23 UK and international studies found that more than half (56%) of people who attempted to come off antidepressants experienced withdrawal effects, and nearly half of these (46%) – i.e. a quarter of all patients – described them as severe.
The systematic literature review, published in Addictive Behaviours, also found it was not unusual for the effects to last several weeks, or even months.
Having obtained NICE’s evidence base for the 2009 guideline via a freedom of information request, the researchers found it was ‘derived, at the time, from only two pieces of research’, which had ‘not been updated since 2004’.
And the researchers, from the University of Roehampton and University of East London, concluded that neither piece of evidence cited a single source to support NICE’s claim that withdrawal symptoms last just one week.
They said: ‘NICE’s current position on antidepressant withdrawal was not only originally advanced on weak evidence, but is 14 years out of date and countered by subsequent evidence, as can be seen in this review.’
The team warned that current guidelines are ‘misleading doctors on the nature and management of withdrawal’ and could lead to patients who experience lengthy withdrawal symptoms being misdiagnosed with relapse, or with a failure to respond to treatment.
This could result in antidepressants mistakenly being reinstated, switched or the dose increased, they added.
In the paper, NICE admitted that its ‘current statement on antidepressant withdrawal was inherited’ from 2004 guidance which said ‘if symptoms are mild, reassure the patient that these symptoms are not uncommon after discontinuing an antidepressant and that they will pass in a few days’.
NICE announced last week that it will re-consult on a new adult depression guideline for a third time, admitting the evidence base for previously released draft recommendations ‘needs updating’.
This means that the final adult depression guidelines will come nearly two years after initially intended.
A NICE spokesperson declined to comment further.
The news comes as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence released a report claiming many GPs fail to warn patients about the potential side effects of anti-depressant withdrawal.
Its survey of 319 users who were stopping medication showed 64% were given no information about the potential risks and side effects by their doctors, and 25% reported getting no advice on how to give up the drugs.
Nearly half also said they experienced withdrawal symptoms for more than a year, and 30% claimed they gave up work due to withdrawal.
But Professor Clare Gerada, a GP in southwest London and medical director for the national GP mental health service, said: ‘As a GP, I have prescribed antidepressants for the best part of 35 years. Some patients do have issues with withdrawing, the majority don’t.
‘However, antidepressants used properly are an effective treatment for depression and save lives.’
Public Health England is including antidepressant prescribing in an ongoing prescription drug addiction review which is also looking at benzodiazepines, z-drugs, gabapentinoids and opioid pain medicines. It is expected to report early next year.