You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Antidepressant use increase in Queensland linked to COVID-19 pandemic stress, doctors says

ABC Health logo ABC Health 5/07/2020 By Amy Sheehan
Queensland's AMA says patients are under increased stress and "increased mental health burden". (ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan) © Provided by ABC Business Queensland's AMA says patients are under increased stress and "increased mental health burden". (ABC Sunshine Coast: Amy Sheehan)

There has been a sharp increase in antidepressant use in Queensland with doctors reporting more people needing extra support to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme has shown the use of the most commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs increased by 10 per cent between January and May this year.

The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, known as SSRI drugs, were dispensed at Queensland pharmacies more than 378,000 times over the five months — an extra 34,000 boxes of tablets compared to the same period last year.

Michael Clements from the Australian Medical Association of Queensland said that data was reflective of what GPs saw in the community.

"That's quite a lot of extra new pills," Dr Clements said.

"A lot of our patients are under increased stress and increased mental health burden."

Dr Clements said SSRI drugs boosted serotonin levels and were a safe and effective treatment for people suffering moderate to severe depressive illness.

"Having the extra serotonin in your bloodstream will enable you to put in place some of the other behaviours and lifestyle adjustments that you're going to need to get yourself out of that pit," he said.

Dr Clements believed the spike in use could be directly attributed to the impacts of the pandemic.

"The financial stress, the homeschooling, worrying about whether you had a job or, as a business owner, whether you could pay your staff," he said.

"There's an awful lot of reason to be stressed at the moment," he said.

"Some of my patients who've come to see me had not experienced a depressive illness for some years and had been off tablets for some years, but they recognised with the increased stress of COVID they could see some of those symptoms coming back."

Sertraline, a common SSRI drug known under the brand name Zoloft, had the most significant spike in usage.

An additional 28,000 prescriptions of 50 milligrams and 100mg tablets were dispensed between January and May — a 16.95 per cent increase on the same period in 2019.

Pandemic impacts like a natural disaster

Dr Clements, a Townsville-based GP, likened the COVID-19 pandemic to that of the Townsville flood disaster last year.

"People are in a bit of shock and a bit of dismay and adrenaline is running," he said.

"Those extra stresses can actually reactivate an underlying depression that maybe you had control of, or for some people, it may trigger off their first episode."

Sunshine Coast psychiatrist Dhushan Illesinghe believes there will be a wave of new mental health cases diagnosed in the next three to six months.

"We can expect from our experience that there is likely to be an exacerbation of symptoms as well as people who present with symptoms for the first time after this," Dr Illesinghe said.

"Judging from other natural disasters, the psychological presentations can take three to six months."

Dr Illesinghe is director of the Cooinda Mental Health Service at Buderim Private Hospital.

"When people experience anxiety and depression they often think, 'Maybe I'm not strong enough, I need to pull my socks up, I need to relax more, or get more sleep or less work'," Dr Illesinghe said.

"They need to acknowledge it is an illness that needs treatment and good food and sunlight are not going to be enough."

Be aware of early warning signs

Health experts say early warning signs of depression and anxiety include lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise, drinking more alcohol and withdrawing from social activities.

"For that to move into a new clinical depression does take time," Dr Clements said.

"We certainly believe that it can take six to 12 months before we actually start to see a formal diagnosis take place."

Dr Illesinghe said anxiety was the most important and recognisable symptom.

"Anxiety is number one, meaning a feeling of impending doom or feeling that something terrible is going to happen without knowing what it is," he said.

Support services in high demand

More than half a million people have visited the online Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service since it was launched by advocacy group Beyond Blue in April.

Calls to its support services also increased by 60 per cent in April and 31 per cent in May, while more than 800,000 people have engaged in its online mental health forums.

Chief executive Georgie Harman said people were anxious about money, job security and the economy.

"People are telling us they're feeling overwhelmed, worried, lonely, concerned about their physical health and the health of friends and loved ones," Ms Harman said.

"There's no one-size-fits-all answer.

"Different people will need different types of support for their mental health and wellbeing."

Ms Harman said many people would benefit from reaching out to a trained mental health professional who could provide the latest information about the pandemic and referral options.

Doctors say with the right treatment people can recover and lead a more active and productive life.

"Very importantly, [effective treatment means] engaging in some kind of talk-based therapy, as well as healthy lifestyle factors such as making exercise a part of every day, making healthy diet a part of every day," Dr Clements said.

Video: WHO halts hydroxychloroquine, HIV drugs in COVID trials after failure to reduce death (Reuters)

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon