I didn’t really plan to announce on live television that I take antidepressants – it just happened, sort of.
I was about to appear, as I do so often, on This Morning With Holly Willoughby, Phillip Schofield, a few weeks ago. The topic was The Truth About Antidepressants.
We were discussing the fact that, during the pandemic, prescriptions for the pills have increased, and also a new study that suggests 56 per cent of patients relapse a year after stopping taking them – which raises the question, should some people take them long-term, a bit like diabetes medication?
Shortly before we went on air, I asked producers if they thought I should mention I’m on the medication myself. I agreed and they agreed.
I didn’t think it would be a particularly big deal. But in hindsight, I suppose I felt that doing it wasn’t just relevant, it was important.
I’ve taken antidepressants, on and off, for about 15 years. I don’t take them because I’m depressed – I am not. I take them for anxiety, a problem that’s plagued me since my late teens and which, at times, has made life quite difficult to enjoy.
In my 30s, it was something I wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing with friends or to millions of viewers. But I feel different now that I am in my mid-40s. Antidepressants are, I’d say, among the top ten drugs I most commonly prescribe.
I’ve noticed this increasing year on year, which I think is partly due to greater awareness of mental health, meaning more people come forward for help, and partly due to the fact that more people are actually suffering from mental illness – although that’s another story.
I wanted to show people who are parents or have regular jobs that they can experience mental health difficulties. Just like everyone else, doctors can become unwell and need treatment.
I’ve taken antidepressants, on and off, for about 15 years. I don’t take them because I’m depressed – I am not. I take them for anxiety, a problem that’s plagued me since my late teens and which, at times, has made life quite difficult to enjoy, writes Dr Ellie Cannon (pictured)
My medication has been effective in my case. I can live my best life, as Holly and Phil said to me.
The response to my appearance on This Morning over the past two weeks has been overwhelming positive. I’ve received hundreds of supportive messages on social media and from patients.
And I’ve had friends admit to me they are also on antidepressants, and thank me for going public. One revealed he had struggled on for many years but had been afraid to take medication because he’d heard ‘so many bad things’ about them. He was now on tablets and it was life-changing.
But there have been critics – which is surprising, considering how innocuous the This Morning segment was. I’ve been targeted by the anti-psychiatry lobby, something I honestly didn’t know existed until now. They believe that antidepressants and other psychiatric medications are harmful – that they cause suicides, poor health and infertility, among other things.
They say these drugs don’t treat the conditions they claim to, and any benefit is purely a placebo effect. Some claim doctors are trying to ‘medicalise normal’ and that mental illness doesn’t actually exist. They use social media to spread their messages and, no doubt, exert influence.
I have a policy to block Twitter trolls immediately, so I have not seen much of the personal pile-on. However, campaigners have also contacted my surgery and The Mail on Sunday.
They claim what I said on This Morning was ‘false… and harmful’, which is pretty weird considering I was giving standard NHS advice.
I was accused of ‘encouraging people to take antidepressants’ – when I was just explaining some of what patients needed to know in order to make their own decisions.
I won’t go into it any further, as a lot of it doesn’t deserve the oxygen. But I will say this: more than 20 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in the UK last year, so it’s not surprising this is an area of interest and debate.
The medical understanding of mental health, how it can be harmed, and how to treat it is constantly changing. I worry that misinformation or untrued claims about the possible side effects of antidepressants only adds to the stigma associated with taking them. People are scared to take drugs that can be life-savers.
Getting help: Dr Ellie pictured with her then boyfriend Adam – who is now her husband – in New York in 1996. He helped her with anxiety.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), a watchdog for the NHS, updated its guidance in 2019 to recognize that some patients experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping taking antidepressants. We always discuss this, and other side effects, with patients, and that’s why users have to come off them very slowly.
I’ve suffered withdrawal myself. It’s a peculiar phenomenon, where it almost feels like your brain judders in your head, although it passed quite quickly. It can be worse and last longer for some people, but I’m sure it can happen to others. Anecdotally, it is only a small minority who experience withdrawal and dependence. NICE published draft guidance on Friday to assist doctors who prescribe these or other drugs that cause these issues. This is not something that anyone is hiding.
And, as I said on air, we do often prescribe an antidepressant in the absence of any other options – psychotherapy, for instance, can be helpful, but there are mammoth waiting lists. If a patient is in distress, we will do our best to help them.
Antidepressants might not completely solve a patient’s problems. Often they’re called ‘sticking plasters’, because pills don’t tackle the root cause of mental illness. But sometimes you need a sticking plaster, and I’d say my own experience is a case in point.
I take antidepressants for anxiety, which they’re shown to treat effectively. They’re also prescribed for obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, pain conditions and even irritable bowel syndrome.
Like a lot of people, I have been through traumatic life events, but I don’t think my anxiety is linked to anything. It’s just part of who I am. My symptoms are very physical. I experience overwhelming nausea and dread, often without any apparent cause. This is often followed by extreme tiredness, and sometimes my heart beats so hard I’m sure I can actually hear it. It’s almost impossible to believe it’s psychological, but it is.
Jimmy Carr, comedian and actor, has been speaking out publicly about his grief at the loss of his mother. He describes it as something visceral, where it knocked him out for days at a time and he didn’t feel able to do anything, or even leave his bed. That is exactly how I feel when I’m anxious – almost completely paralysed and unable to motivate myself.
I hate being alone. When I was studying medicine at Cambridge, I’d often sleep on my friend’s floor rather than be by myself in my room.
Dr Ellie, Holly and Phil were discussing the fact that, during the pandemic, prescriptions for the pills have increased, and a new study that suggests 56 per cent of patients relapse a year after stopping taking them – which raises the question, should some people take them long-term?
I don’t feel anxious about what should make people anxious. I have been able to cope well with disasters, whether it be from family illness or trauma. I have faced terribly upsetting and traumatising situations as a doctor – death, grief and violence – and found myself able to handle them, even when exhausted, working nights and having young kids.
No, my anxiety is almost entirely irrational – it is very hard to explain, and does make me sound a bit mad.
For example, I tend to worry about the safety and well-being of one of my children only, not both, and for no other reason.
I plan what happens if I fall every step I take. When it’s raining heavily I worry about my family, even when they are in the house. I can’t stand it when the kids tell me about school yard dramas and bullying – it terrifies me. I know you’re probably thinking, ahh, she was bullied or had a tough time at school herself, but I absolutely didn’t. My children have never had to deal with any problems. I loved school.
Evenings and night are always worse than day. I also have tremendous health anxiety: possibly an occupational hazard as a doctor, but it’s incredibly inconvenient. I have a migraine once every couple of months and every single time I become convinced it’s a brain tumour. I also have anxiety about flying and travel. It’s not that I think the plane will drop out of the sky, but the whole uncertainty of going away seems to terrify me.
It’s impossible to pinpoint when it started.
I remember being on holiday, aged 20, with my boyfriend, now husband, and him saying: ‘Do you realise that you tell me you feel sick every night?’ I suppose I’d just thought it was normal. It is still difficult to believe that everyone feels the same way.
I have tried spending hours with therapists to explore where all this comes from, but I’ve never felt it helped much.
However, medication really does work. So much so that, while on it, I’ve tried to trigger my own feelings of anxiety by thinking about stuff that normally worries me – like something dreadful happening to the kids when they are on their way home from school. Nothing happens.
Antidepressants help me live a happy life, and allow me to enjoy normal activities, without worrying about ridiculous thoughts.
I take antidepressants for anxiety, which they’re shown to treat effectively. They’re also prescribed for obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, pain conditions and even irritable bowel syndrome, writes Dr Ellie (file photo)
As with all drugs, even paracetamol, there can be side effects and complications. These issues are discussed with patients. There are always benefits and risks to taking medication.
Quashing anxiety far outweighs any potential downsides for me. This is what the vast majority of people who take antidepressants experience. Of course I realise they don’t work for everyone. Some patients will feel the same as me, while others will experience side effects and no benefits. These include fatigue, nausea and changes in appetite and body weight.
Sertraline is the most widely prescribed antidepressant medication in the UK. Although it has few side effects, evidence suggests it may only be effective in around 60% of patients.
There are many other medications and lifestyle changes that can be made, such as better sleep or exercise. We also offer ‘social prescribing’ – flagging up local services such as gardening clubs or gyms, which can help people feel better.
It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, and it’s really up to the individual and their doctor to decide what’s best.
Every few years, my antidepressants are reintroduced. It is recommended that patients take them for the shortest time necessary, and I’m always curious to see if I no longer need them. Over time, anxiety can creep back in.
I wasn’t on them when the pandemic hit last year, but like many people I found my mental health suffered so I went back on them, and once again they’ve done what they’re supposed to.
As for the anti-psychiatry lot, I’m sure many of them believe what they say, but that doesn’t make them right. They also think they’re fighting to help people, and I’d disagree with that too.
Yelling at people on social media isn’t the way to drive understanding of anything. And it’s simply going to scare people who are already in a vulnerable state.
Antidepressants aren’t a magic bullet. They’re not the devil either. I hope, by speaking out, I’ve been able to dispel a few myths and offer some balance.