By Wendy Aron
It’s no secret that the number of antidepressants being prescribed over the last two decades has increased dramatically. In fact, according to a recent government study, the number of antidepressant prescriptions increased by 16 million, up from 154 million to 170 million, between 2002 and 2005 alone.
Why such an increase? There are probably several reasons.
Drug companies try to reap as much profit as possible by developing new medications all the time. People see drug company advertisements for antidepressants on television and ask their doctors about them. Internists and GPs take the line of least resistance and prescribe the medications, while psychiatrists are paid handsomely by insurance companies for medication management. Also, doctors are not Gods and they do occasionally make misdiagnoses.
But I believe that most caring, honest and thorough doctors know the difference between sadness and depression and will not prescribe antidepressants for the former. Depression is sadness spiraling out of control. Its symptoms include drastically impaired sleep, total lack of interest in pleasurable activities, persistent feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and complete social isolation. Depression may begin with sadness over a difficult life circumstance, like the loss of a loved one, but it becomes an illness at a point where a person has difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis.
Is There One Right Answer For Everyone?
Even for people who have been diagnosed with clinical depression by competent doctors, there is much debate in mental health circles about the benefits of antidepressants. I, myself, have been stabilized on the same medication for over twenty years, and have had negligible side effects from it. When my psychiatrist tried to wean me off of the medication, my depression reared its head again. Antidepressants have therefore been a lifesaver for me.
On the other hand, I know a fellow blogger who says that for him, the side effects from antidepressants were as disabling as his depression. He now maintains himself on a diet of cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise and meditation. Then there are the people who take medication for awhile, and once they have learned the proper coping skills, can get off of it. So there is no one right answer for everyone.
What you do need to know is that even if your psychiatrist puts you on an antidepressant, a positive outcome the first time around is not guaranteed. It’s a matter of trial and error until the psychiatrist finds the right medication or mix of medications that work for you. No two people respond the same to a given medication and what works for another person might not work for you. Additionally, medication is never a substitute for other treatment modalities like therapy and exercise. Medication works best when it is integrated into a total treatment plan.
Although some studies have shown that taking antidepressants can lead to increased depression and even suicidal thinking, especially in adolescents and young adults, the research has been inconclusive on this count. Nevertheless, close observation by mental health professionals, family, and friends is necessary to guard against this potential side effect, especially when beginning antidepressants or when increasing or decreasing the dose.
You should also never suddenly stop taking your antidepressants. You should get off them gradually under the guidance of a psychiatrist who can monitor your mood and progress. Though it can be tempting to stop taking medication once your condition has improved, (particularly if you feel pressured by family who think taking medication is a sign of weakness), your depression might return if you were to do so.
GPs who prescribe antidepressants at the drop of a symptom when they should refer the patient to a psychiatrist are doing a disservice to their patients. And psychiatrists who prescribe antidepressants cavalierly are doing the same. But in this climate it’s also the patient and the patient’s family’s responsibility to become educated as to the signals of a true clinical depression. They must become aware if sadness has turned into something prolonged and crippling. If so, it might be time to look at treatment that includes giving antidepressants a try.
In sum, there are many factors that have contributed to the explosion in antidepressant medication prescriptions. But as a society, we owe it to ourselves to make sure that we are taking antidepressants for the right reasons. That means only if we truly need them.
There are a number of free resource articles online that can tell you what you need to know about antidepressants and similar drugs.