England’s only helpline for antidepressant withdrawal to close

The Bristol Tranquilliser Project is to close at the end of September because the local ICB has withdrawn funding

14th September 2023 about a 3 minute read
“It’s frightening, very frightening. I needed recognition from someone who knew what they were talking about.” Angela Clayton, volunteer for Bristol Tranquilliser Project and former antidepressant user

The only NHS helpline in England to support people coming off antidepressants is to close, because the health service has withdrawn funding.

Once the Bristol Tranquilliser Project closes at the end of September, there will be no more nationwide services, its manager says.

Although the project was only designed to serve the Bristol area originally, it takes calls from all over the country. The NHS Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire Integrated Care Board (ICB), which funds local health services, said the project was not commissioned to be a national helpline.

The number of people using antidepressants in England has grown – last year it reached more than eight million. Over the past six years, the number of antidepressant items prescribed has increased by 34.8%, from 61.9m items in 2015/2016 to 83.4m items in 2021/2022. This summer, a BBC report found that two million people have been taking antidepressants for five years or more.

While the Bristol Tranquilliser Project also helps people taking sleeping pills and other prescription medication, half of its work is with people struggling with symptoms from reducing their dose of an antidepressant.

The service’s manager, Jayne Hoyle, says that by the time people come to her service, they are often “in extreme distress”. They may have seen their GP and been referred to specialists for testing, she says: “The first thing they experience is relief, because we say ‘this is withdrawal from your medication…this is what you need to do’.”

When people stop taking a drug that their body has become used to, they can experience withdrawal symptoms, such as low mood and feelings of anxiety, as well as physical symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue and shaking, many of which can mimic other illnesses.

GPs are telling people to come off antidepressants too quickly

Official guidance for doctors now recommends that people reduce the dose of their medication in stages, but it does not specify how long it should take. Hoyle believes many GPs are still telling people to come off the drugs too quickly. Volunteers at BTP say the service ended up acting as a national helpline, because of a lack of other support available.

Luke Montagu, a member of a cross-party group in Parliament that has been campaigning for a national helpline to support people going through withdrawal from prescription medications, said it was “astonishing” that the NHS does not already have a service to support such people. “There is now much greater awareness of the problem,” he told the BBC. “And yet the government is still failing to fund and implement these services adequately.”

A document published by NHS England in March said services should be provided to support people going through withdrawal from prescription medication, including antidepressants. One of the NHS Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire ICB’s reasons for withdrawing funding was that it had identified “other existing services that deliver an equivalent or enhanced level of provision.” This seems to have been referring to a service focusing on painkillers and sleeping pills, but not antidepressants.

Angela Clayton, a volunteer for the BTP who herself had been helped by the service, told the BBC that she had taken more than 18 months to feel her normal self after she stopped taking antidepressants. She developed nausea, fatigue, severe feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms when she stopped her medication: “It’s frightening, very frightening. I needed recognition from someone who knew what they were talking about.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has just rejected a submission to fund a national helpline, the BBC reported.

FCC Insight

Two million people in England have been taking antidepressants for five years or more, while last year eight million people had at least one prescription for antidepressants. Long-term users of antidepressants who decide to stop taking them need support to do so gradually to reduce the possibility of debilitating and frightening withdrawal symptoms. It is deeply disappointing that the only NHS helpline in the country that offers such support is now to close. The government has made a commitment to improving mental health funding so that those with mental illness receive appropriate support – some of that funding should be directed to a national helpline that can help the large number of people needing to reduce their dependence on antidepressant drugs.