Over half of patients who stop taking antidepressants relapse

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Sep 30, 2021

Over half of patients who stop taking antidepressants relapse

A new UK study suggests that just 44% of those who stop taking antidepressants do not experience depression during the following year

As a nation, we’re talking about our mental health and wellbeing more than ever before. Yet for many of us, there’s still a stigma around medication for our mental health. In England alone, around 4 million of us are long-term antidepressant users.

Nearly one in five of us show symptoms of anxiety or depression. The number of individuals taking antidepressants in England has been reported to be at an all-time high. Over 7 millions adults in England (17% of the adult population) were reported as being prescribed antidepressants in 2017-18. In a three month period during the pandemic, research suggests more than 6 million people were prescribed antidepressants.

While many people report a positive impact on their mental health, researchers set out to discover if individuals are benefiting over an extended period of time. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows 44% of those who gradually stopped taking antidepressants did not report experiencing depression during the following year. 56% said they felt as though they had relapsed or experienced depression again for over two weeks at some point. In contrast, 39% of those in the group that had continued with medication reported feeling depressed at some stage.

Those who experienced a relapse were also found to be more likely to report symptoms of withdrawal. Researchers explained that these symptoms may be confused with a relapse, which could indicate individuals may need to come off of medication more slowly.

Dr Gemma Lewis, study author from the University College of London, said: “Our findings add to evidence that for many patients, long-term treatment is appropriate, but we also found that many people were able to effectively stop taking their medication when it was tapered over two months.

“There are many people who would like to stay on their antidepressants and the paper shows that for many people that is an appropriate decision,’’

Participants had all been taking daily doses of common antidepressants for at least two years prior to the study, and felt ready to come off of them. Split into two groups, half continued taking their medication, whilst the other half tapered off over three months and followed up for a year. Few were receiving any kind of psychological treatment.

Results showed that patients who tapered off their antidepressants experienced a relapse sooner than those who stayed on their medication. At the 12-week point, symptoms of depression and anxiety were shown to be higher in the group that had tapered off their medication.

Of the 478 adults from 150 GP surgeries across England who took part in the study, 59% of those who were in the group that stopped taking medication continued to no longer take any antidepressants.

Why is long-term use a concern?

Researchers do not currently know why some people are able to stop taking antidepressants without experiencing further bouts of depression, whilst others can’t. Many hope that by furthering our understanding of the underlying causes, experts will be able to better predict who can safely stop medication when the time is right for them.

Some people are concerned that the rise of antidepressants could result in people continuing to take medication for life, when long-term use of such medications are still unclear.

What other options are there?

For many, seeking help and support for depression can feel impossibly daunting. Reaching out to speak with your GP is often the first step towards recieving an official diagnosis to help rule out other problems, better understand how you are feeling and how it may be affecting your physical and mental health, and to explain to you the options that might best suit your individual needs.

Counselling or behaviour therapy for depression is often recommended in combination with medication. One of the most common forms of treatment offered to help those experiencing depression, counselling and psychotherapy have been proven to be effective.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling for depression (CfD), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), psychodynamic therapy, art therapy, and group therapy are all forms of treatment and support that may be recommended when seeking help for depression. Commonly recommended therapies such as CBT can help you to recognise how thoughts and behaviours can affect the way that you are feeling. Other types of therapy such as MBCT - a type of therapy specifically designed to help those who experience recurring depression - combines elements of cognitive therapy and mindfulness to help break negative thought patterns.

While long-term use of antidepressants doesn’t guarantee you will remain depression-free, current research does suggest that those on medication have a lesser chance of experiencing a relapse.

Other recommended ways to combat depression include exercise for at least 150 minutes each week, altering your diet, improving sleeping habits, and creating a positive self-care routine.

To find out more about therapy for depression, visit

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