The number of those diagnosed with depression is falling in the UK, but more and more women there opt for anti-depressants, says a study by Southampton University.
Prescriptions issued by GPs for drugs including Prozac and Seroxat have more than doubled over the past 11 years. More than two million patients are taking antidepressants for years at a time - many of them young women.
AdvertisementThey seemed to be taking the drugs over a long period rather than to alleviate symptoms in the short-term.
Previous studies have shown psychological therapies can be as effective as drugs in tackling mental health problems, and may work better in the long term.
NHS guidelines recommend that kind of treatment, including cognitive behavioural therapy, often in preference to drugs.
But when faced by problems in accessing such counselling, women could be seeking the easy route of prescription drugs, not knowing what they are getting in to.
Many of them have subsequently had trouble getting the help they needed to treat their addiction, it is pointed out.
The research, published in the British Medical Journal, analyses all new cases of depression between 1993 and 2004 from anonymous computerised general practice records.
The database covers 170 GP surgeries and around 1.7million registered patients.
It found the number of prescriptions issued for antidepressants per patient rose from 2.8 in 1993 to 5.6 in 2004.
Data from the Prescription Pricing Authority also found more than 30million prescriptions for SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as Prozac and Seroxat, are issued each year - twice as many as the early 1990s.
The study also found 90 per cent of those diagnosed with depression now take SSRIs either continuously or as repeated courses over several years.
Researchers said they feared the rise could result in addiction problems like those affecting users of the anti-anxiety drug Valium 30 years ago.
Professor Kendrick, who led the study, said: 'We estimate more than two million people are taking antidepressants long-term, in particular women aged between 18 and 30.
'Our previous research found although these drugs are said not to be addictive, many patients found it difficult to come off them, due to withdrawal symptoms including anxiety.
'Many wanted more help from their GP to come off the drugs. We don't know how many really need them and whether long term use is harmful. This has similarities to the situation with Valium in the past.'
He said the UK was among several western European countries which had seen a substantial rise in antidepressant prescribing in the past 20 years.
'Lower thresholds for diagnosis or treatment, or changes in illness or behaviour do not seem to be responsible for this rise,' he said.
'The rise in antidepressant use is mainly explained by changes in the proportion of patients receiving long-term treatment.'