Prescription items for antidepressants showed the greatest numerical rise among all drugs types for the fourth consecutive year, the Prescriptions dispensed in the community 2006-2016 report shows.
Antidepressants increased by 3.7m items in 2016 – a 6% rise on 2015 – bringing total items prescribed up to 64.7m for the year.
The RCGP said GPs were always careful when prescribing antibiotics and suggested the figures could also indicate that mental ill health is now better recognised and diagnosed.
The latest prescribing figures mean the number of antidepressant items has more than doubled over the last decade, from 33.7m back in 2006.
The data show over 1.1bn prescription items across all types were dispensed in 2016, a 2% increase over the year before.
This brought the total spend to £9.2bn – which was actually a 0.7% decrease compared to the spend in 2015.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘While at face value the rise might seem alarming, it could also be indicative of better identification and diagnosis of mental health conditions across healthcare – and reducing stigma associated with mental health in society, leading to more people with mental health conditions seeking medical assistance.
‘Both would be positive steps forward as we strive for parity of esteem between physical and mental health.
‘Antidepressants can be effective drugs when used appropriately and they do help a lot of patients. Nevertheless, no doctor wants their patients to be reliant on medication, and where possible we will always explore alternative treatments, such as talking therapies – but there is a severe lack of these services available in the community, where they could be of great benefit to patients.
‘We need more of these services in the community and we need all GPs to have better, quicker access to them.
‘NHS England's GP Forward View pledged for every GP practice to have access to one of 3,000 new mental health therapists. We need this, and its other promises – including £2.4bn extra a year for general practice and 5,000 more GPs – to be delivered as a matter of urgency, so that we can continue to provide the best possible mental healthcare to our patients.’