An extra four million antidepressant prescription items were dispensed in 2020, costing NHS England £139m more than in 2019, a study from the University of Huddersfield has found.

The study, published today (4 June) in the international DARU Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, looked at trends in prescriptions and costs of various antidepressants in England during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It found 78 million antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed during 2020 - a four million increase on the 2019 figures, and costing the NHS an extra £139m.

The SRRI antidepressant sertraline alone accounted for an extra £113m during 2020 than in 2019, the researchers found, despite the drug accounting for only 1.79 million of the additionally dispensed items.

The researchers attributed this surge in expense to the sertraline shortages and ‘a significantly higher cost of generic drugs’ seen during the pandemic.

According to the research there was a ‘sharp’ increase in the cost of antidepressants when the pandemic was at its peak in April 2020, with the NHS paying £35m for the drugs that month – more than double the cost recorded in the same period in 2019.

‘Shockingly, the total number of Ads prescribed during January 2020 to September 2020 costed NHS over £96m more than the cost incurred during a similar period in 2019,’ the report added.

The authors concluded that the rise in antidepressant prescription costs during the pandemic is a ‘potential cause of concern’ and also ‘highlights an urgent need for mental health interventions in the country and strategies to optimise the use of ADs.’

Commenting on the research, lead author Dr Hamid Merchant, said: ‘These findings are particularly important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Observational data suggests that young adults, up to 25 years of age, were impacted by the mental health issues during the pandemic, and hence, were more likely to use antidepressants.’

He added: ‘It is, therefore, important to optimise the safe use of antidepressants, particularly in young adults. Not only to help with mental health but also in preventing the associated side-effects that may further increase the morbidity and mortality associated with depression in younger adults.’