The number of anti-anxiety medication prescriptions has risen sharply in recent years, according to a new study.
The study looked at prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications – or anxiolytics – across 176 GP surgeries in the UK caring for more than 2.5 million patients.
There were 546,154 “anxiolytic prescribing events”, researchers from the University Of Bristol found.
They said that prescription rates were steady between 2003 and 2008 before a sharp rise until the end of the study period in 2018.
The team said that the rise was most likely due to an increasing number of new patients starting treatment, rather than people already taking the drugs being prescribed more of them.
“Increases in incident prescribing for anxiety, especially for young adults, may reflect better detection of anxiety, increasing severity of symptoms or earlier unmet need,” they wrote.
“However, some of this prescribing is not based on robust evidence of effectiveness, and may contradict guidelines.
“It is known that once people have started taking antidepressants they often continue long term, and there is increasing evidence that this may be associated with unintended harms.”
Researchers also noted the rise in prescriptions of antidepressants for anxiety in adults under the age of 25, describing this as “substantial” in recent years.
And while benzodiazepines – a type of sedative which can help treat symptoms of anxiety and insomnia – prescriptions fell over time, increases have been seen in those aged under 35.
The team also warned that in 2017, 44% of benzodiazepine prescriptions were longer than the recommended maximum of four weeks.
“Research is needed to improve understanding about why this is happening and to provide interventions that are acceptable and effective for young adults that can mitigate the growing reliance on pharmacotherapy for this age group,” the study’s authors wrote.
The study is published in the British Journal Of General Practice.