A study undertaken at University College London involving 653 patients with mild to severe depressive symptoms, anxiety or both, has found that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressant sertraline, widely prescribed by GPs, reduces anxiety before having an effect on depression. In the study, one group was administered sertraline and the other placebo. At six weeks, the group on sertraline reported a 21% greater improvement in anxiety symptoms versus the control group. At 12 weeks this rose to 23%. In terms of depression however, there was little to report at six weeks and just 13% improvement at 12 weeks. That said, the group on sertraline were more likely to report feeling better in terms of their mental health than the control group.
Lead study author, Dr Gemma Lewis, said: "It appears that people taking the drug are feeling less anxious, so they feel better overall, even if their depressive symptoms were less affected."
“A study undertaken at University College London has found that sertraline, widely prescribed by GPs, reduces anxiety before having an effect on depression. “
Chair of the Royal College of GPs, Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, said antidepressants worked best "when taken for significant periods of time, which is one reason why doctors will often review patients after several weeks of use and then prescribe a fairly long course of the drugs, if they appear to be beneficial. This study gives an interesting insight into how a medication primarily used to treat depression may be improving a patients' health in other ways in the shorter term, by reducing symptoms of anxiety, which is often associated with depression."
President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Prof Wendy Burn, said that whilst the findings would be "reassuring for both doctors and patients, it also shows that antidepressants are not the solution for everyone and reinforces the importance of combining them with other options, such as talking therapies and social prescribing."