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New campaign against growing use of antidepressants

08:57 21/09/2023

A new awareness campaign from the federal government is targeting healthcare professionals, seeking to curb prescriptions of antidepressants.

Belgium’s health minister Frank Vandenbroucke described the rising consumption of psychotropic drugs as “alarming”, citing figures from the health ministry.

Those figures indicate that one in four Belgian residents - almost three million patients - took at least one psychotropic drug in 2022.

Psychotropic drugs are medicines used to treat mental disorders that act on the central nervous system. They include antidepressants, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines and related products (sleeping pills or tranquillisers) and psychostimulants.

Doses of such drugs must be adapted to the patient's needs and the duration of treatment must be clearly defined. However, according to authorities, these treatments are often prolonged unjustifiably, rarely monitored and rarely questioned.

“I want to strengthen the role of healthcare professionals by emphasising their responsibility, because they are the prescribers and the people who support our fellow citizens in their recovery, so their role in improving the current situation is vital, but also by further expanding the training on offer,” Vandenbroucke said.

“But this will not be enough. In the short term, in collaboration with the partners concerned, I will be further developing the policy on psychotropic drugs in response to this health crisis.”

An estimated 55 million unit doses of antipsychotics were dispensed in Belgian pharmacies in 2022. Approximately 370 million unit doses of reimbursed antidepressants were dispensed in that same year, with 73.5% of them prescribed by GPs.

This latest awareness campaign - the fifth of its kind - aims to encourage “more appropriate use” of such treatments, pointing out that the number of psychotropic drugs dispensed in Belgium has risen by almost 70% since 2013.

Vandenbroucke said that while these drugs may be necessary in certain cases, their use without proper care can lead to addiction and dependence.

The aim of the awareness campaign is to steer patients towards non-medicinal treatments first, to remind them of the need to assess appropriate treatment if they resort to psychotropic drugs, and to draw up a treatment plan shared by the various healthcare professionals.

This is the first time that such a campaign involves collaboration with clinical psychologists in addition to GPs and pharmacists.

The idea is to raise awareness among all those involved in healthcare, and to ensure greater transparency in patient care.

The website has been launched as part of the campaign, with specific pages dedicated to each of the players involved to help patients avoid taking these drugs.

Written by Helen Lyons