ANYONE who says patients are not being harmed by withdrawal from prescription pills such as antidepressants is "in denial", an MSP has said.

Michelle Ballantyne, a former nurse and Conservative MSP for South Scotland, said she found it "very troubling" that there appeared to be a tendency to downplay or dismiss the problem.

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

Speaking during a meeting on the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, Ms Ballantyne referred to a previous evidence session in January when the Scottish Government's own psychiatrist adviser, Dr John Mitchell, said the number of people suffering severe and life-limiting side effects was “very rare”. However, he also admitted there is no data on the issue.

Ms Ballantyne, who has also headed up a regional drug and alcohol rehabilitation service, said: "I felt there was an element of saying 'there isn't really a problem here'. But there clearly is a problem, and anyone who says otherwise is in denial."

The Herald: Michelle BallantyneMichelle Ballantyne

It comes after the committee was inundated with around 120 responses to a petition calling for a dedicated helpline for people who have been left with permanent painful and disabling side effects after tapering off prescription medications such as antidepressants, painkillers and benzodiazepines, commonly used as sleeping pills.

Read more: Royal College of Psychiatrists criticised for 'dangerous and misleading' claims about antidepressant withdrawal

Committee chair Johann Lamont said it was one of the largest responses she had ever seen to a Scottish Parliament petition. The committee voted to seek additional evidence from GPs.

Graeme Dey, SNP MSP for Angus South, said: "They're prescribing these drugs, they should be seeing any negative impact they're having over the long-term. It's really important to understand what they're encountering in their surgeries the length and breadth of Scotland."

More than 100 patients shared harrowing personal accounts of being left with pain, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or sensory disturbances years after stopping treatment.

Read more: Campaigners beg MSP to tackle 'health scandal' of prescription pill harm

In his submission, Dr Des Spence, a Glasgow-based GP who has written extensively on antidepressants, said the idea that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance in the the brain was "a simple myth, with no proven biological basis".

He said pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s had seen mental illness as "simple business" because these were life-long, chronic diseases, and got doctors onside by buying them dinners, flying them around the world to conferences and putting them up in luxury five-star hotels.

When patients struggled to come off antidepressants, Dr Spence said "financially conflicted" medics simply encouraged them to "carry on taking antidepressants for years and even decades".

He added: "Today history is repeating itself with pain killers. The industry realised that pain was common and chronic. It was big business opportunity. They peddled the idea that strong opioid painkillers were 'non addictive' if used 'therapeutically'."

The petition was set up by Marion Brown, a psychotherapist from Helensburgh who was alarmed at the number of people she was encountering who appeared to have being harmed despite taking pharmaceuticals as prescribed, sometimes for decades.

She was concerned that existing alcohol and drug rehabilitation services are focused on treating people hooked on illicit substances.

Her petition has been backed by psychiatrists, mental health charities, the BMA and MPs on Westminster's All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence, who warned that medics are too often "unaware of the severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms".

The BMA said inappropriate prescribing of psychoactive drugs was "leading to a range of health and social harms".

In January, Public Health England launched a year-long review to determine the scale prescription pill dependence and withdrawal symptoms, particularly in relation to antidepressants, sedatives, gabapentinoids, and opioid painkillers.