Depression is a mood disorder that can negatively affect cognition, energy, self-esteem, and even everyday activities like eating and sleeping. Pre-Covid-19, it was estimated that over 300 million people worldwide suffer from this debilitating condition, with 16.2 million adults suffering in the US alone. Numbers have understandably risen since the onset of the pandemic. According to the US Census Bureau, a third of Americans currently show signs of anxiety and clinical depression. In addition, celebrity depression-related suicides, like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, have brought depression more out into the open; the subject may be less of a stigma today. What’s clear is that a solution to combat the breadth of mental illness is now needed more than ever. But are antidepressant drugs the answer, or are these pills capable of causing more harm than good?
Here are three arguments against using antidepressants to fight mental illness, and three arguments in favor of using antidepressants.
Find Another Way
Relapse is common
Antidepressants are often only a temporary solution to depression and may not consistently be helpful in getting rid of it long-term. Studies show that the risk of relapse after discontinuing antidepressant medication is high; for one of the most common types of antidepressants (SSRIs), 26-45% of people relapse after discontinuing the medication, and the relapse rate is even higher for people taking stronger antidepressants.
Time is of the essence
People with Major Depressive Disorder often have a difficult time getting out of bed, let alone attending to their daily tasks. This kind of disorder needs immediate treatment, which antidepressants can’t provide. While antidepressants may be helpful in the long run, they don’t work fast enough. While it can take anywhere from six weeks to six months for antidepressants to take effect, newer generations of SSRIs take about three weeks – which is still way too long to wait for someone who’s feeling desperate and seeking professional help. Taking a pill for weeks without feeling a change may discourage a depressed person from continuing treatment or seeking further help. In contrast, seeing a therapist or implementing other lifestyle and behavioral changes into their daily routine may bring about quicker results.
Not just your average side effects
Almost every drug poses a risk of negative side effects, but antidepressants up the stakes. Some antidepressants, such as benzodiazepines, have been found to be addictive and difficult to get off of. Fifty to 60% of antidepressant users experience significant side effects, such as gastrointestinal and sexual complications, weight gain, nausea, insomnia and/or diarrhea. Even worse is the possibility of suicidal thoughts, which is a potential side effect of almost every antidepressant. The last thing a person with depression needs is another incentive to self-harm, and these potential side effects are too dangerous to warrant giving antidepressants a try.
We’ll Take Two, Please
Balancing the scales
Antidepressants are a non-invasive way to “right the wrongs” that have transpired in a depressed person’s brain. Depression has been linked to an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, meaning that the chemicals which are responsible for happiness, eating, sleeping, and other important biological functions are off-kilter. Antidepressants are small pills taken orally that seek to restore this imbalance. While a chemical imbalance is not the only potential cause of depression, studies show that 60-70% of depressed patients who take antidepressants respond positively, with symptoms eventually remitting.
The unique effect of pills
For some, even the simple act of taking a pill can effect a positive change in mood, regardless of what the pill actually does. The placebo effect – which is when a person positively or negatively responds to fake treatment when they believe that the treatment is real – is a good demonstrator of this. In fact, a study of the placebo effect demonstrated that people with depression who show improvement while taking fake drugs get the most benefit when taking antidepressants. Just knowing that the pills are there provide comfort can be an encouragement to your brain to fight depression along with the medicine.
When depression is severe enough, finding a cure can become a crucial next step to save a person’s life. The pain of living with depression can often lead people to self-harm, and in some cases, to commit suicide. There tends to be a stigma against taking medication, which makes many weary of taking the plunge. However, antidepressants are one of the most effective treatments for mental illnesses, and should be a resource that is well-considered. As one therapist aptly says: “Depression without medication is like cleaning your house with a ball and chain on your ankle….When you take medication, you still have to clean the house, but without the ball and chain.”
The Bottom Line: Some may feel discouraged from using antidepressants as they don’t work quickly or necessarily provide a permanent solution, while others may find antidepressants a helpful resource with which to fight depression. What do you think? Would you encourage friends or family suffering from depression to seek treatment that includes antidepressants?