Too stoic for antidepressants

Should people who are depressed take antidepressant medication, or should they just tough it out?

There’s often a stigma surrounding the use of antidepressants, and it may be preventing people from getting the treatment they need, college student Leah Lancaster wrote this week in an insightful opinion piece for the Minnesota Daily.

Lancaster writes that she has been taking antidepressants since she was 15 years old – and that without them, she most likely would not have gone to college. “Yet, when the topic comes up, I often find myself defending my decision against accusations that I’m ‘numbing myself’ or ‘taking the easy way out,’” she writes. “Supposedly, if I did yoga, ate healthier and took a more ‘natural’ approach, I wouldn’t need to contaminate my mind and body with toxic pills.”

Some of the stigma surrounding depression itself seems to have eased in the last couple of decades. But when it comes to antidepressants, it can still be hard for the public to accept that for many people, medication may be necessary to help them feel better.

It’s hard to measure how widespread this attitude might be. It clearly exists, however, and one of the consequences is untreated depression. A study that appeared last year in the Annals of Family Medicine found that patients often don’t tell their primary care doctor that they’re experiencing depression. The No. 1 reason for this lack of disclosure? They feared being prescribed an antidepressant.

Even in the medical setting, patients often are reluctant to report that they take prescription medication for depression or anxiety, writes Mag Inzire, a physician assistant at a community hospital in New York.

The patients she encounters rarely worry about disclosing a history of diabetes or high blood pressure, she wrote. “Yet when it comes to depression or anxiety, there is some uncertainty in their response. And it always seems to follow by some long, drawn-out explanation as if to justify the diagnosis.”

Depression in fact is relatively common. In any given year, about 6.5 percent of the
American population will experience depression. Across a lifetime, about 16.2 percent of the population will have depression at some point. Stigma or not, antidepressants are one of the most frequently prescribed drug categories in the United States.

How antidepressants work in the brain, and whether they’re truly effective, is a matter for some debate. At one time it was thought that low levels of serotonin, a mood-enhancing chemical, were a trigger for depression, and that drugs such as Prozac, which raise the level of serotonin in the brain, would correct this. This theory has been called into question, though, and if continuing neuroscience study is any indication, the role of antidepressants is considerably more complex than this.

Why, for instance, does medication seem to be more effective for severe depression but less so for mild or moderate depression? Why do some antidepressant medications cause a worsening of depression in some people?

Studies have found that people with mild depression often do well with talk therapy alone. Other studies have found that a combination of medication and talk therapy is often most effective for mild to moderate depression. What does this mean for the role of talk therapy in treating some forms of depression?

Of the millions of antidepressant pills dispensed in the U.S. each year, some likely have been overprescribed to those who don’t really need them. “The reality is that many psychiatrists do give out pills too freely, and many patients start taking medications without properly researching them beforehand,” Lancaster writes.

But in her own case, antidepressant medication has made the difference between being able to function vs. withdrawing from life, she wrote.

Medication hasn’t been a cure for her. “No pills can do that,” she wrote. “What they can do is give you some energy and focus so you can make it through the day without feeling lethargic, irritable or just downright horrible.”

And she notes a double standard, at least in college-campus culture, of peers who view binge drinking, smoking, unprotected sex and “study drugs” as socially acceptable but believe antidepressants are “dangerous and mind numbing.”

“Like any medicine, antidepressants aren’t perfect,” she wrote. “But to make the sweeping generalization that all of them are bad is dangerous and prevents many from getting the help they need.”