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Have Antidepressant Prescriptions Surged Since COVID-19?

This entry was posted in Antidepressant and tagged on by .
Medically Reviewed Fact Checked

Last Updated on March 7, 2022 by Chris Weatherall

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Dr Samuel Lee MD

Have Antidepressant Prescriptions Surged Since COVID-19?

As one might expect, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a damaging impact on mental health across the globe. From lockdowns to social distancing measures, these evolving precautions have proven confusing and demoralizing for many of us.

Even if we keep in mind the importance of COVID-19 regulations, this doesn’t make the isolation and sense of anxiety any easier to deal with. Experiencing difficult situations such as unemployment or the death of a loved one also isn’t going to make the experience any simpler.

It’s no surprise that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the United States. These depression symptoms could be further influenced by variables like lower economic resources, lower social resources, and increased exposure to stressors (including job loss). Individuals who’ve faced one more or more of these circumstances are at an even greater risk of depressive symptoms.

Is There an Antidepressant Epidemic in the United States?

Even before the start of the pandemic, rates of antidepressant use in the United States were already rising. According to data that was gathered between 2011 and 2014, approximately 13% of teenagers and adults were taking antidepressants.1

Does this mean that depression rates have been gradually rising in the United States? Although that would logically explain why antidepressant use has increased so significantly, the numbers don’t appear to support this reality.

As of a 2019 survey, only 4.7% of American adults reported regular depressive symptoms.2 Clearly, this is far lower than the rate of antidepressant use – even though one might expect these numbers to correspond.

Even without receiving a psychiatric diagnosis, it would seem that many Americans are being prescribed antidepressants by their physicians. Essentially, this means that individuals are being prescribed medication to treat a condition that they haven’t even been diagnosed with.

This is concerning for a variety of reasons, including the fact that antidepressants aren’t entirely harmless. Not only does antidepressant use lead to side effects in many cases, but the process of coming off of antidepressants can be difficult.3 Many common antidepressants can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms, especially if the person is to stop taking them abruptly.

The Link Between Antidepressants and COVID-19

The Link Between Antidepressants and COVID-19

It can be a struggle to cope with mental health issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If a person finds that their depressive symptoms are becoming increasingly severe, or if they’ve started to develop symptoms that have never existed in the past, antidepressants can seem like the logical solution. And given that so many doctors have been prescribing antidepressant medications to their patients, it is fairly easy to acquire these drugs – even without a prior psychiatric diagnosis, such as clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or bipolar disorder.

There has been a rise in benzodiazepine (commonly used to treat anxiety disorders) and antidepressant use since the start of COVID-19, and this trend began very early on in the pandemic. Many of these fills can be associated with brand-new prescriptions, rather than medication prescriptions that existed before the pandemic’s onset.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants have been escitalopram oxalate (a generic form of Lexapro), duloxetine (generic Cymbalta), and sertraline (generic Zoloft).

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Dealing With Antidepressant Withdrawals After COVID-19

After the stress of COVID-19 has gone down, it’s possible that many individuals will consider going off of their antidepressants and antianxiety medications.4 However, it’s not safe for these people to simply stop taking their medications even if they feel like they no longer need them.

Coming off antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can be a tricky process, and the possibility of withdrawals shouldn’t be ignored.5 Even though these withdrawal symptoms are rarely life-threatening, they can be uncomfortable and difficult to manage. They may even dissuade someone from going off their antidepressants, despite the fact that they no longer require these medications.

Many patients who stop taking their antidepressant medications will develop antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.6 Depending on whether you taper off your medication or quit cold turkey, the severity of discontinuation syndrome can vary.

Never stop antidepressants suddenly – seek medical guidance on how to gradually discontinue the medication.

Some symptoms commonly associated with antidepressant discontinuation syndrome are:

  • Insomnia (could involve vivid dreams or nightmares)
  • Flu-like symptoms (sweating, fatigue, headache, achiness, etc.)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Emotional problems (irritability, agitation, anxiety, etc.)
  • Sensory issues (such as feelings of being burned or shocked)

How to Discontinue Your Antidepressants

If you’d like to discontinue your antidepressants after the COVID-19 pandemic has become less severe, you should always consult your doctor first. Your healthcare provider can help you to taper down your dosage in a way that can minimize withdrawal symptoms. This can also reduce the risk of depression or anxiety relapse.

Generally, the process of tapering off of antidepressant medications will take weeks or months..8 These tapering guidelines aren’t drug-specific, however. This means that the healthcare provider will need to use clinical judgment to decide on a patient’s tapering schedule. They’ll need to account for the medication’s half-life, how long the patient has been taking the medication, and what the patient’s current dose is.

A medication’s half-life determines how quickly it can be eliminated from the patient’s body. More specifically, the “half-life” is how long it takes for 50% of the medication to be removed.8 If the antidepressant has a shorter half-life, withdrawals will emerge rapidly if the medication is abruptly stopped.9

Taper Off Antidepressants with Alternative to Meds Center

Taper Off Antidepressants with Alternative to Meds Center

The Alternative to Meds Center is staffed by experts in medication tapering and handling withdrawal symptoms. If you’re looking to come off your antidepressants, never go about the process alone. It’s dangerous and can even be life threatening.

Contact us for more information about our treatment program and how we can help your mind, body and spirit heal.


Sources:

  1. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2015: With special features on racial and ethnic health disparities. Table 80: Selected prescription drug classes used in the past 30 days, by sex and age: United States, selected years 1988–1994 through 2009–2012. Hyattsville, MD. 2016.
  2. Villarroel MA, Terlizzi EP. Symptoms of depression among adults: United States, 2019. NCHS Data Brief, no 379. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020.
  3. Wilson, E., & Lader, M. (2015). A review of the management of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology, 5(6), 357–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125315612334
  4. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Depression: How effective are antidepressants? [Updated 2020 Jun 18]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK361016/
  5. Wilson, E., & Lader, M. (2015). A review of the management of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology, 5(6), 357–368. https://doi.org/10.1177/2045125315612334
  6. Gabriel, M., & Sharma, V. (2017). Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 189(21), E747. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.160991
  7. Andrews, P. W., Thomson, J. A., Jr, Amstadter, A., & Neale, M. C. (2012). Primum non nocere: an evolutionary analysis of whether antidepressants do more harm than good. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 117. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00117
  8. Hallare J, Gerriets V. Half Life. [Updated 2021 Aug 23]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554498/
  9. Shelton R. C. (2001). Steps Following Attainment of Remission: Discontinuation of Antidepressant Therapy. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 3(4), 168–174. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v03n0404


This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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Have Antidepressant Prescriptions Surged Since COVID-19?
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