Remaining on antidepressants long-term could reduce the risk of relapse but many can come off them safely, according to a new study led by researchers at University College London (UCL).

The study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved 478 primary care patients in England who had been taking long-term antidepressants and who felt well enough to consider stopping.

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All the patients had a history of at least two episodes of depression and had been taking their antidepressants for a minimum of nine months; 70% of participants had been taking the medication for more than three years.

In a randomised, double-blind controlled trial, half of the participants stopped taking their medication while the other half continued. Those who stopped their treatment were given a lower dosage for the first two months before being given placebo pills, as part of a tapering regime.

Roughly half of participants who stopped taking antidepressants relapsed within a year

The results of the study found that just over half (56%) of the participants who stopped taking antidepressants relapsed within a year, compared to 39% of those who stayed on their medication. Of those who relapsed, only half then chose to return to an antidepressant prescribed by their clinician.

Those who discontinued their antidepressants were more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. Despite this, by the end of the study, 59% of the discontinuation group were not taking antidepressants.

The authors of the study hope the findings can help doctors and patients to make an informed decision together on whether or not to stop their antidepressants after recovery from a depressive episode.

Further research needed

Lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis, said: “Our findings add to evidence that for many patients, long-term treatment is appropriate, but we also found that many people were able to effectively stop taking their medication when it was tapered over two months.

“As 44% of those who discontinued their antidepressants did not relapse after a full year, our findings suggest that some patients might decide to stop their antidepressant, knowing the risk of relapse, but we recommend discussing this with your doctor.”

The researchers say that further studies are now needed to help doctors to understand why some people can come off antidepressants safely while others cannot.