'Too much, too quickly': 40% of burnout patients given antidepressants

'Too much, too quickly': 40% of burnout patients given antidepressants
Credit: Belga

The process of diagnosing burnout among people in Belgium is too slow, while too many antidepressants are being prescribed too quickly to people suffering from it, a recent study found.

As many as 40% of those who are burnt out are prescribed antidepressants, while for longer periods of illness (six to 12 months), this figure increases to 47%, according to research by the health care fund Socialistische Mutualititeiten.

"Doctors often prescribe antidepressants straight away, which is problematic," according to Dr Bart Demyttenaere, director of medical policy.

"Medication is not the right treatment for burnout. Although the diagnosis and distinction from depression are not always easy to make, burnout requires a different treatment. If medication is prescribed, it must go hand-in-hand with psychological treatment."

Burnout causes people to feel physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, often as the result of a lot of stress over a long period of time.

Last year, more than 33,000 people in Belgium were absent for more than one year due to burnout, an increase of 33% compared to 2016, according to recent figures from the National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance (RIZIV).

However, as doctors don't always recognise the symptoms as those of burnout, many people often go about their daily business while showing symptoms for a long time, meaning they continue work despite the symptoms until they "crash."

Systematic approach needed

The previously ongoing rise in burnouts has been further accelerated by lockdowns and teleworking. Experts now fear that, following the coronavirus crisis, a burnout epidemic will follow.

This is why the health care fund is arguing it is important to develop a systematic approach to diagnosing and treating the condition, based on guidelines for proper treatment.

"Doctors still do not have a reliable tool to help them make the right diagnosis. What we need is an unambiguous tool that all healthcare providers know about and use," said Dr Demyttenaere.

The Socialistische Mutualititeiten stressed that, when it comes to receiving proper treatment, only one in three undergoes consultations with a psychologist, despite this playing a large role in recovery from burnout.

"We have to invest in affordable, accessible and qualitative first-line psychological care. In case of burn-out, quick intervention is crucial, meaning there can't be long waiting times," said Dr Demyttenaere.

He stressed that a safe a smooth reintegration of the patient into the workplace should also be integrated into this approach. "This reintegration must be well prepared, with adapted working conditions and personal guidance."

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