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Understanding relapse rates to inform decisions about stopping antidepressants

  • In patients on long-term antidepressant treatment who are largely symptom-free, it can be useful to know relapse rates to inform discussions about stopping treatment. In a recent study of people on long-term antidepressants (70% taking antidepressants >3yrs), 56% who stopped their medication had a relapse within 12 months, compared to 39% who continued them. After 12 months, 61% who stopped their antidepressants remained off them.

Suggested WiseGP actions:
  1. Discuss stopping antidepressants with people who are largely symptom-free, using reported relapse rates to inform decisions made.

  2. Share evidence with practice pharmacists performing medication reviews.

Read more about the research informing these recommendations here:


Withdrawing from SSRIs


  • 56% experience withdrawal symptoms when stopping SSRIs. Withdrawal can be confused with relapse and make people feel reluctant to stop their medication. In stable patients, stopping antidepressants can prevent side-effects, avoid drug interactions and reduce burden and costs.


  • Withdrawal usually begins within days of stopping antidepressants (though it can begin weeks after stopping fluoxetine), whilst relapse takes weeks or months to start. Reintroducing antidepressants rapidly reduces the intensity of withdrawal symptoms whereas in relapse, symptoms usually take weeks to improve.


  • Withdrawal from SSRIs can cause psychological and physical symptoms, with some people reporting sensory disturbances described as ‘electric shocks’ or ‘brain zaps’. Nausea, muscle pain or these sensory disturbances, suggest withdrawal rather than relapse of anxiety and depression.


  • To reduce the risk of withdrawal, we should reduce the SSRI dose by 25 or 50% approximately every 4 weeks. If withdrawal symptoms occur, the SSRI dose should be increased to the previous effective dose and tapering performed slower, in 10-20% increments. Liquid doses may be required if some doses are not available in tablet form.


WiseGP actions:


  • Have a look at some examples of tapering regimes published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and discuss with colleagues at a clinical meeting how they taper antidepressant doses - could you all take a new approach?


Read more about the evidence informing this GEM here:

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