THE Scottish Government’s psychiatric adviser has admitted that there is no data on how many patients in Scotland are seriously harmed from withdrawal from prescription drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping tablets and painkillers.

Dr John Mitchell insisted that the number of people suffering severe and life-limiting side effects was “very rare”, but admitted that there are no statistics on the problem.

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Mental Health Minister Maureen Watt also told MSPs that increasing access to psychological therapies would not reduce the number of patients being prescribed antidepressants.

The evidence was heard during a meeting of Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee, which has been examining calls for a dedicated support service for patients harmed by addiction to and withdrawal from prescribed drugs. Currently, specialist addiction services across the UK deal only with people abusing illicit drugs or alcohol, not pharmaceuticals.

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The move has been backed by the BMA, which warned that inappropriate prescribing of psychoactive drugs was "leading to a range of health and social harms". Dozens of patients have also shared harrowing personal accounts of being left with pain, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or sensory disturbances.

Asked by MSP Rona Mackay whether there were any statistics on the number of people suffering withdrawal effects from prescription drugs, Dr Mitchell, the Scottish Government's Principal Medical Officer for Mental Health, said there were none.

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Dr Mitchell, a consultant psychiatrist, added: "The experience of discontinuation effects from antidepressants is actually quite common and pretty much affects every antidepressant from every class, but in general the actual discontinuation symptoms are mild and self-limiting.

"So the nature of really how severe this is and how challenging this is, we can't really define that. These are real symptoms that people have and, certainly for people who are on the dependent drugs like opiates and benzodiazepines, without careful handling almost 100 per cent of people would have withdrawal reactions."

He added that he believed the number experiencing "severe, life-limiting" side effects were "very rare", but that it would be difficult to gather accurate data.

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He said: "We know that discontinuation reactions are actually very common, but the issue is when is that something that people will manage through good communication with their prescriber, and when do we have an unusual situation where more help is needed? It's difficult because where would you draw the line?"

Mrs Watt told the committee that antidepressant prescribing had improved in recent years "from being too often used in less than effective doses for too short a period of time to longer more appropriate durations at higher doses which are more effective and reduce the risk of recurrent bouts of illness in the long-term".

She said that increases in antidepressant prescribing in Scotland indicated better diagnosis and treatment of the condition by GPs, adding "there is no evidence that having greater access to psychological therapies will reduce antidepressant prescribing".

Mrs Watt said the Government's goal is to improve access to psychological and social interventions, such as exercise, in combination with pharmacological treatment.