England’s only antidepressant withdrawal helpline to close

Jayne on the phone

Image caption,

Jayne Hoyle, manager of the service, says people who ring the hotline are often “in extreme distress”

By Rachel Schraer

BBC Verify

England’s only NHS helpline for coming off antidepressants is to close, after the health service withdrew funding.

In March, NHS England said local health services should support people struggling to come off these drugs.

But the closure of the Bristol Tranquilliser Project will leave no nationwide services, its head says.

The local NHS says there are, “other existing services in place,” and that the project was only designed to serve the Bristol area.

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. It will close at the end of September.

‘It’s very frightening’

More than eight million adults in the country took an antidepressant last year. And despite its name, the Bristol Tranquilliser Project (BTP) takes calls from people around the country.

While it 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.

Manager of the project, Jayne Hoyle, says 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’.”

Withdrawal can happen when you stop a drug that your body has become used to.

Taking that drug away too quickly, before the brain has had time to adjust, can lead to symptoms including low mood and feelings of anxiety, as well as physical symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue and shaking, many of which can mimic other illnesses.

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.

Mrs Hoyle believes many GPs are still telling people to come off the drugs too quickly. And volunteers and clients say BTP ended up acting as a national helpline, because of a lack of other support available.

Image caption,

Angela Clayton says suffering withdrawal symptoms can be “very frightening”

It took Angela Clayton more than 18 months to feel her normal self after she stopped taking antidepressants. She was helped by BTP in 2001, and went on to volunteer for the service.

She developed nausea, fatigue, severe feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms when she stopped her medication in one go. She says withdrawal “makes you feel like you’re going mad”.

“It’s frightening, very frightening. I needed recognition from someone who knew what they were talking about.”

Since then, she’s worked with hundreds of clients and says their experiences mirror her own, two decades ago – including the fact they’ve often been unable to get the information they need until they found their way to the helpline.

Stuart Bryan was one of those helped more recently. When he tried to come off his antidepressant, he developed symptoms he’d never had from the conditions he took the drug for.

“I was never once told about any possible withdrawal issues. If I’d been told that, I would have had a different approach to it all,” Stuart says. “I was pretty shocked to hear about the Bristol Tranquilliser Project closing down. They were keeping people alive.”

Information on stopping antidepressants

  • Patients with concerns about their medication should discuss them with their doctor. Stopping an antidepressant suddenly can be dangerous
  • Doctors say it is always important to seek advice and treatment for mental health problems and to try to have any medication regularly reviewed
  • Visit the NHS, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Leap For PDD websites for information

Luke Montagu is 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.

He says it is “astonishing” the health service does not already have a service to support those people. “There is now much greater awareness of the problem,” he says. “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.

But one of the local board’s reasons for withdrawing funding was that it had identified “other existing services that deliver an equivalent or enhanced level of provision”. The BBC understands they were referring to a service that focuses on painkillers and sleeping pills, but not antidepressants.

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

A DHSC spokesperson said the government was, “committed to supporting people with their mental health,” and had invested “an additional £2.3 billion” annually until 2024. But they did not comment on services for antidepressant withdrawal in particular.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can find details of organisations that can help via the BBC Action line.

Watch: The Antidepressant Story on BBC iPlayer (UK only)

Panorama examines whether the current generation of antidepressant drugs have lived up to their promises, following patients who have suffered serious side effects.

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