When you’re suffering from deep, disabling depression, the idea that a pill can give you back your life—and sense of hope—is incredibly appealing. But are antidepressants always the best treatment option? What are the potential side effects and safety concerns? And are there any truly effective non-drug alternatives? These are some of the important questions to think about when considering antidepressant treatment. Learning about what antidepressants can (and can’t) do will enable you to weigh the benefits against the risks, make a more informed decision, and find the depression treatment that’s right for you.
What are antidepressants?
Antidepressants are a range of medications used in the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions, and are some of the most commonly prescribed medications around. They include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), atypical antidepressants, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
Antidepressant medications are designed to balance chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain that affect mood and emotions. For anyone suffering the pain and anguish of depression, they promise a quick and simple method of relief. But there’s a catch.
Is depression really caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain?
You’ve seen it in television ads, read it in newspaper articles, maybe even heard it from your doctor: depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that medication can correct. The truth is that there is very little—if any—research to support this theory. It’s a triumph of pharmaceutical marketing over science.
While antidepressants do increase the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, this doesn’t mean that depression is caused by a serotonin shortage. After all, aspirin may cure a headache, but that doesn’t mean headaches are caused by an aspirin deficiency.
How effective are antidepressants in treating depression?
Even though depression isn’t simply a matter of having too little serotonin, that doesn’t mean that antidepressants don’t work. Going back to our aspirin analogy: headaches aren’t caused by an aspirin deficiency, but they still go away when you pop a couple of pills. Is the same true with antidepressants and depression? Again, the evidence may surprise you.
- When depression is severe, medication may be helpful—even lifesaving. However, research shows that very few people become symptom-free on antidepressants, and some become worse.
- Many people who respond initially to medication soon slip back into depression, despite sticking with their drug treatment.
Furthermore, other studies show that the benefits of antidepressants have been exaggerated, with a growing number of researchers concluding that—when it comes to mild to moderate depression—antidepressants are no more effective than placebos.