PATIENTS prescribed antidepressants should be warned of the potential for “severe and long-lasting withdrawal symptoms” psychiatrists have said.

The revised guidance, issued today by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, marks a major turning point for official advice about the drugs.

Previously the College insisted that the side effects of tapering off antidepressants were "usually mild and self-limiting", lasting around a week.

However, that has been increasingly challenged by campaigners, researchers, patient groups and parliamentary inquiries at Holyrood, Westminster and the Welsh Assembly which between them gathered evidence from thousands of antidepressants users who had suffered long-lasting or even permanent harm after weaning themselves off antidepressants.

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Many patients reported finding it so difficult to cope with the side effects of stopping - such as hallucinations, brain zaps, vertigo, nausea and insomnia - that they had to remain on antidepressants indefinitely.

Today the College said it was “increasingly apparent” that some patients can suffer from more severe symptom.

A report from the college published on said the use of medication should be “underpinned by a discussion with the patient… about the potential level of benefits and harms, including withdrawal”.

It added: “There should be greater recognition of the potential in some people for severe and long-lasting withdrawal symptoms on and after stopping antidepressants in Nice [National Institute of Clinical Excellence] guidelines and patient information.”

RCPsych president Professor Wendy Burn said she hoped their position would be reflected in new Nice guidelines which were last issued in 2009.

Any changes in official guidance would also be adopted in Scotland.

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Prof Burn said: “We know that Nice is working on updating its guidelines and want to see them more in keeping with what we’re hearing from some patients – and GPs – about the range of experiences of coming off antidepressants.

“As psychiatrists, we are duty-bound to take on board the concerns of patients who’ve experienced more severe and long-lasting side effects of these medications.”

She added: “Antidepressants can be very effective for treating moderate to severe depression, particularly in combination with talking therapies, and what we want is guidance that best supports their use.”

Dr James Davies of the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry (CEP) said: “We welcome these changes in policy which, if acted upon, will help reduce the harm that is being caused to huge numbers of patients through overprescribing, inadequate doctor training and often disastrous withdrawal management. 

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"CEP calls upon the College to follow through with these demands, and help ensure that Nice guidelines in particular are updated to reflect the latest evidence."

Dr Davies said he hoped the government would also respond to the "urgent need for withdrawal support services, including a 24 hour national helpline" for patients struggling with dependence on prescription pills. 

The BMA - including BMA Scotland - has been pushing for a national helpline. 

Professor John Read, an expert in clinical psychology at the University of East London who has researched withdrawal, welcomed the College's statement.

He said: "It seems the minimizing is finally over. [College] members who value research over personal opinions, and who place the public good before the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, have apparently prevailed.

"This dramatic U-Turn may represent a first step towards the RCP regaining the respect of scientists in this field , which will be accelerated by their removing drug company sponsored individuals from senior positions of responsibility."