Facebook – People turning to inadequate Facebook groups to ‘fill void’ of mental health support, study warns
People coming off of antidepressants are increasingly turning to inadequate Facebook support groups to “fill the void” of professional mental health support, a new study has warned.
Patients coming off of antidepressants are seeking out support from Facebook groups due to “failed clinician-led tapers”, an analysis by the University of East London has shown.
Researchers analysed 16 Facebook support groups with over 67,000 members that were raising awareness of and supporting individuals tapering off antidepressants.
Membership was found to be growing at about 28 per cent annually, and was more than 80 per cent female.
Lead author, Dr Ed White, said: “I was alarmed when I found tens of thousands of people online seeking help with stopping antidepressants, many of who are in a perilous state after being tapered too fast by their prescriber.
“Online peer support has become such an important avenue of care for people suffering antidepressant withdrawal and needing guidance to safely taper off these medications in the absence of medical backup from Doctors.”
The pandemic has further conflated the problem with The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP) reporting a ten to 15 per cent rise in antidepressant prescriptions across the country.
Dr John Reed, co-author of the paper, said he feared there would likely be a rise in the social media group memberships if action is not taken to give patients the care they need.
Charities have also expressed their concern over the unregulated groups “filling the void” of professional care.
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, which offers the peer support platform Side by Side, stressed that it was important to “not follow the advice of someone just because they are taking the same medication as you”.
Instead, he said patients should talk to a health professional, such as a GP, pharmacist or psychiatrist.
While Laura Peters, Head of Advice and Information at Rethink Mental Illness said: “Social media can be a useful tool for people looking for peer support when managing mental illness, but it should never take the place of professional medical advice.”
Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, commented that the effects of withdrawal from antidepressants “can be serious” and “need to be managed properly”.
“Withdrawing from taking antidepressants can be a big adjustment for patients, and whilst social media can be a good source of support, we’d urge patients to be wary about unverified sites or groups as a source of medical advice,” he said.
In a recent enquiry, Public Health England established that antidepressant withdrawal is experienced by about half of people who try to reduce or come off their medication.
Symptoms of withdrawal may include dizziness or vertigo, electric shock sensations in the head, flu-like symptoms, stomach cramps or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
There are currently no NHS services specifically designed to assist people to safely withdraw from antidepressants or other psychiatric drugs.
The report, published in the scientific journal Therapeutic Advices in Psychopharmacology, has called on PHE to ensure the recommendation in its report to have withdrawal services embedded in the National Health Service are “implemented rapidly”.