Ex-drug industry lobbyist Margot James MP hails ‘good news’ of anti-depressants approval as NHS bill soars

Stourbridge MP Margot James has celebrated the findings of a controversial research report that says anti-depressant medications work, just weeks after the Government said it wants to tackle over-dependence on them.

Against a background of huge rises in bills to the NHS for antidepressants, research published in The Lancet medical journal that monitored patients on antidepressants over eight weeks found ‘improvements’. It was seized upon by the pharmaceutical industry as a definitive verdict on the performance of widely prescribed drugs.

The MP, herself a former parliamentary lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, signalled her satisfaction with the report through social media. She Tweeted: ‘Good to see studies confirming what has been known for well over a decade, anti-depressants work, terrible that it takes so long for such ‘news’ to filter through in the UK’.

But other analysts have expressed concerns over chronic underfunding of alternative NHS treatments and a shortage of mental health specialists that is said to leave GPs with no choice but to prescribe drugs.

And medical authors in both the UK and the USA have previously raised worries over the potentially serious long-term side effects of antidepressants and other academics have questioned the research report’s eight-week window of observation. The NHS website itself carries cautionary advice about taking medication.

Ms James’ upbeat take on the report follows an earlier report in The Times that the NHS’s annual bill for anti-depressants had risen to £285 million a year, partly because of underfunding of non-pharmaceutical special support across England.

The Times said: “The NHS is spending a record £780,000 a day on antidepressants as failing mental health services struggle to provide alternative therapies, new figures show.”

The newspaper reported that prescriptions for drugs to treat depression more than doubled from 29 million in 2005 to 61 million in 2015. This, combined with the cost of the drugs rising by 7.4 per cent from 2014-15, means that the health service is paying £285 million a year for antidepressant medications alone.

Staff reporter Katie Gibbons wrote that “Despite pledges from the government to increase access to talking treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy, patients are still routinely handed drugs by GPs rather than being passed on to underfunded services.”

Other commentators, including Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker, called for more research into why more people are struggling with poor mental health, and better funding of vital support services that stop people from ‘falling into that darkness’. (see social media post, left)

Prior to Ms James’ move into politics, she worked in pharmaceutical public relations before selling her Parliamentary lobbying company, Shire Public Relations, to the global advertising giant WPP for a reported £4 million.

In her subsequent role as regional European President of the Ogilvy Healthworld PR corporation, she represented the UK pharmaceutical industry at a landmark Parliamentary Health Committee inquiry into the influence of pharma companies on health care in 2004.

According to the committee minutes of the session* she attended, Ms James defended its practices of advertising, communication campaigns and PR as ‘education’.

She disagreed with a fellow witness to the all-party panel of MP’s, Dr Richard Horton – the then editor of The Lancet – who took issue with Ms James’ definition, asserting that ‘the work that the industry puts out under the mask of education is largely marketing dressed up as education’.

Committee Chairman David Hinchliffe noted that a former editor of the British Medical Journal, Richard Smith, had been quoted as saying that ‘marketing and promotional activity has increased inversely to innovative drug production in recent years. Since 1995 research staff numbers have fallen by two per cent while marketing staff numbers have increased by 59 per cent.’

Dr Horton responded: ‘The problem we have at (medical) journals is that the great tool for marketing are the papers we publish, so that has led to the swathe of ghost-writing, public relations attached to research papers, using the research that we publish as a marketing tool and not as an educational tool. We get caught in that vice.”

Other publications have also expressed reservations about the growth of anti-depressants use, particularly in the USA. In the journal Quartz, writer Olivia Goldhill concluded: “The latest meta-analysis only looks at eight weeks of treatment. There are several studies showing that though antidepressants produce strong results in the short-term, non-medication-based treatment options have better effects in the long-term.”

MIND, the UK mental health care charity also urged caution. Their information manager Rachel Boyd said: “What people find helpful in managing their mental health will vary from person to person – whether this is medication, talking therapies, making lifestyle changes such as taking exercise, or a mixture of these.

“It’s important to say that, while antidepressants can be effective for some, they are not the solution for everyone and are not recommended as a first-line treatment for mild depression. Anyone considering taking antidepressants should be made aware of the possible side effects they might experience and should have their treatment reviewed regularly.”

Editorial note: text in bold in the above report indicates a link to source – click to connect. Links may open in another window.

Additional source links referenced: The Week news digest magazine, Parliamentary Publications and Records archive, The Guardian, WPP Ogilvy Healthworld PR, Pharmaceutical Market Europe journal.

*This document link is to an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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