MENTAL health experts have accused the Royal College of Psychiatrists of misleading the public with “potentially dangerous” claims that the vast majority of patients experience no withdrawal effects within two weeks of stopping antidepressants.

A formal letter of complaint signed by dozens of psychiatrists, academics and patients – including some in Scotland - has called on the president and chair of the UK professional body issue an urgent correction.

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They said the goal of their complaint "is to correct a potentially dangerous misleading public statement".

It comes after Professor Wendy Burn, president of RCPsych, and Professor David Baldwin, chair of the college's psycho-pharmacology committee, stated in a letter to the Times newspaper on February 24 that "in the vast majority of patients, any unpleasant symptoms experienced on discontinuing antidepressants have resolved within two weeks of stopping treatment".

Within 48 hours of this letter being published the college's own report, 'Coming Off Antidepressants' - which contradicted this claim - had been pulled from the RCPsych website.

This document, based on a survey of 800 antidepressant users carried out by the college, stated that withdrawal symptoms were experienced by the majority (63 per cent) of patients, generally lasted for up to six weeks and that a quarter reported anxiety lasting more than 12 weeks.

Read more: Number harmed by prescription pills 'too difficult to say'

Critics said the college had suddenly deleted the report to "prevent the public seeing evidence that contradicts your claim".

Marion Brown, a psychotherapist from Helensburgh who has been petitioning the Scottish Parliament to improve the support available to patients harmed by dependence on prescription pills including antidepressants, said professors' letter was "absolutely shocking". Her petition has been backed by organisations including the BMA.

She added: "The Royal College of Psychiatrists either have no idea of the problems these drugs, and antidepressants in particular, are causing, or they do know and they're trying to not know - a wilful blindness."

The letter of complaint, submitted by Dr John Read, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of East London, is signed by another 29 psychiatrists, academics and patients who have suffered years of withdrawal symptoms after coming off antidepressants.

The signatories include Dr Peter Gordon, a psychiatrist from Stirlingshire, and Ann Kelly, from West Dunbartonshire, who previously spoke to the Herald about being permanently crippled by severe pain, mobility problems and visual disturbance despite taking two and a half years to taper herself gradually off antidepressants.

Read more: Patient says she was 'chemically slaughtered' by antidepressants

The letter of complaint states that the two-week claim "is not evidence-based, is incorrect and has misled the public on an important matter of public safety, with potentially hazardous consequences".

They add that "people may be misled by the false statement into thinking that it is easy to withdraw and may therefore try to do so too quickly or without support from the prescriber, other professionals or loved ones".

The row over antidepressants was reignited following a Lancet study on February 22 which concluded that the drugs were always more effective than a placebo at reducing acute depression.

However, critics pointed out that the researchers had based their findings on the results after no more than 12 weeks' use, when most people are on antidepressants much longer.

Dr Andy Docherty, a member of the Critical-Psychiatry Network, a group of psychiatrists and clinicians concerned that patients are being harmed by long-term use of antidepressants, said under-reporting of side effects and withdrawal problems was an "elephant in the room".

He said too many patients end up in a never-ending cycle of treatment.

He said: "If you've got anxiety and depression, then withdrawal symptoms will be put down to a re-emergence of your depression and anxiety. So you end up getting prescribed new pills, and it just becomes a vicious circle."

In January, Dr John Mitchell, the Scottish Government's psychiatric advisor, told Holyrood's petitions committee that the number of people suffering severe and life-limiting side effects as a result of withdrawal from prescription drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping tablets and painkillers was “very rare”. 

However, he also admitted that it was "difficult" to gather accurate data on the problem. 

A spokesman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: "We received a formal complaint from Professor John Read on March 9 and we are currently investigating this.

"In line with our College policy, we are treating the complaint as confidential."