A Kiwi teacher caught up in the devastating 2011 Japan tsunami is one of thousands of New Zealanders being prescribed antidepressant drugs.

New statistics, revealed in a University of Otago study, show almost one in eight New Zealanders over the age of 15 are on antidepressants despite little evidence the drugs are helping curb the country's alarming suicide rates.

The research was carried out between 2008 and 2015, but experts say these figures have increased dramatically in the last three years.

Researchers said giving people more antidepressants did not seem to be working and warned of the significant side-effects of the drugs and the limited evidence about the long-term impacts.


However, experts spoken to by the Herald stressed that antidepressants played an important role in the treatment of some patients.

Evie Aitcheson - who was suffering survivor guilt after being on the frontline of the 2011 Japan tsunami - spoke to the Herald about her "seven years of medicated hell".

The 33-year-old Japanese teacher said she returned to New Zealand soon after the disaster with post traumatic stress disorder feeling lower than ever, and was prescribed antidepressants by her GP.

"My friends said to me, 'You look the same on the outside but it's just your shell'. They said my personality was just totally different."

She described feeling numb to the core, loosing all social awareness, gaining a lot of weight and being even more depressed than before starting the medication.

"It impaired my ability to feel human and to really be present with people and pick up what they were saying.

"My relationships were hugely affected being on these medications because I just wasn't myself," she said.

After taking 300mg of commonly prescribed venlafaxine every day for nearly seven years, Aitcheson said she had slowly been weaning herself off the drugs.


"Already I am feeling a lot more myself being less medicated. Despite having depression I've pushed myself to get a masters and bachelors degree and I think having those goals and people around to support me has been what's helped get me out."

Auckland psychiatrist David Codyre - who worked for more than 30 years in community mental health - said Aitcheson's case was not uncommon.

"Anyone who has had depression triggered by an event like that, those are the people who really should be offered therapies over medication."

Mental health advocate Mike King said many doctors felt the only option they had for people who were struggling with mental health problems was medication because of the excessive waiting lists for counselling.

"They know wait times are getting longer and longer. It's not something that is going to be fixed overnight.

"We need a secondary service so when you come to the doctor with a mental health issue you're not going straight into the system, because once you are into the mental health services you are automatically deemed to be unwell and that needs to change."

Codyre said he had been working with Auckland DHB and Counties Manukau DHB providing a mental health specialist in a community practice so patients were able to be seen on that day.

"Our data from that showed that in time prescriptions plummeted dramatically since having that integrated model of the practice, so there are solutions and we are now doing this in a second clinic in South Auckland.

Codyre said he hope more funding would be provided from the Government's Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry to get more similar initiatives off the ground.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson blamed the surge in antidepressants on people not having the funds to access counselling or other therapies .

"We need to start looking at this as a social problem rather than a medical one and look at the triggers and suggesting things like relaxation, changes to diet or loneliness and social contact."


• The number of New Zealanders aged 15 and over prescribed antidepressants has surged by 21 per cent in seven years, from 10.4 per cent in 2008 to 12.6 per cent in 2015.

• Pākehā women aged 65 and older were the highest users with 22.8 per cent nation-wide prescribed antidepressants in 2015.

• Mental health experts say these figures have increased dramatically in the past three years.

• Researchers say there's no evidence the increased use of the drugs has curbed New Zealand's alarming suicide rates.

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

• Samaritans 0800 726 666

• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.