Student backlash at targeted drug study invitation

Image: Wikimedia Commons

YUSU’s Disabled Students’ Officer, Aisling Musson, has criticised drug study invitations sent to York students recorded by Unity Health as suffering with “stress-related problems”. One of the UK’s most commonly prescribed antidepressants, sertraline, is to be studied against a placebo.

The study aims to decipher “who might fully benefit from antidepressants as a treatment for stress, depression or low mood” as “there is some evidence that antidepressant medication may be helpful to only some people, other people may be taking it unnecessarily”. The invitations state that recipients were chosen because they are not currently taking antidepressant medication.

Musson has criticised Unity Health asking students to participate in the study. The GP surgery will receive compensation for the time taken to recruit participants. Musson prefaced: “while there is nothing inherently wrong with clinical trials, a number of things about the way these are being communicated and advertised is concerning”. Musson stated that the letters contained “outright falsehoods” about the possible side effects of sertraline, as information provided to students states that the drug is “generally well tolerated” and “does not have many side effects”. An appendix of side effects is also provided to those asked to participate, outlining some of the common side effects such as nausea, sleeping troubles and headaches.

Musson also took issue with the timing of the study, which hoped to recruit students during Summer Term’s exam period. Musson commented that “when prescribed sertraline through the usual channels doctors and experts specifically recommend not starting the medication right before a time such as an exam period”. NHS information also notes that those taking sertraline for panic attacks may find that symptoms can worsen during the first few weeks of treatment.

Musson also noted that those selected may not have consented to this use of their data. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “firstly there are privacy concerns…secondly there are real medical concerns given that the students targeted may have experienced depressive symptoms but those symptoms may have stemmed from another mental illness for which this medication would be unsuitable. I am deeply worried that such a letter was allowed to be sent out”.

A University spokesperson commented: “there have been very few studies into the value of these medications for people with lower severity or stress-related symptoms. The NHS urgently needs more research into this topic and has funded the largest ever UK study of antidepressants for lower severity symptoms. NHS patients in 23 GP practices across Yorkshire are invited to participate in the study if their GP thinks this might be of interest.

“We want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to participate in this research and we see no reason why students should be denied this opportunity since this would be unfair and arguably discriminatory. The study has been designed and is managed to the highest standards with full ethical approval from the NHS, and the team that runs it includes people with experience of depression or low mood. All invitations to join are accompanied by an information sheet with a comprehensive list of possible side effects, we discuss any concerns about them with potential participants before they consent to join the study, no one is ever put under any pressure to join, participants can change their minds at any point, we monitor their progress and have 24-hour access to the unblinding service.”

Nouse has been asked not to contact Unity Health, but are of course happy to receive a statement.

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