Treating Depression with Medication

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, each year about 6.7% of U.S adults experience major depressive disorder. Many of those affected will seek psychotherapy for treatment of their symptoms. Over the last half-century, psychotherapy has become a culturally accepted form of treatment for depression and numerous other mental illnesses. As such, it is a tool that many people readily recognize as a way to help with their depression. However, there is another effective tool for the treatment of depression that remains shrouded in mystery and stigma by many people: anti-depressant medications.

Anti-depressants are a class of drugs known as psychotropic drugs or medications. A psychotropic drug is a psychiatric medicine that alters chemical levels in the brain that impact mood (emotions) and behavior. Anti-depressant medications work primarily on three chemicals in the brain that affect our sense of well-being: serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. This essay will not focus on the chemical makeup of anti-depressants or explain scientifically how they work. Instead, this essay is to present them as another tool in the safe and effective treatment of depression.

Many people know anti-depressants by their brand names. Some of the most widely known in the United States are Celexa, Cymbalta, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, Wellbutrin and Zoloft. In the U.S., all of these medications require a prescription. Ideally, a psychiatrist should write these prescriptions. However, an increasing number of medical providers are also writing them for their patients. While this is perfectly legal, many do not consider it ideal, as primary care providers may not be fully educated on the possible side effects of the medications they are prescribing.

Antidepressant medications, like nearly all medications, do have unwanted or negative side effects. Many of us have heard news accounts of suicides that have been attributed to taking antidepressant medications. This has contributed to the stigma and fear that some people have about taking these medications. However, suicide and suicidal ideation are probably the least common side effect of antidepressant medications. The more common negative side effects are usually temporary and far less severe. They may include: headache, nausea, drowsiness, insomnia and dizziness.  It is important to remember that each medication may cause different side effects and that individuals taking the same medication may experience different side effects. In fact, some individuals may experience no unwanted side effects at all.  

Antidepressant medications can work best when the patient is also receiving psychotherapy. Together, patient and therapist can decide if and when the patient is ready for treatment with medications. Additionally, the therapist is another set of ears and eyes monitoring for negative side effects. There is a lag time of as much as 30-60 days before an individual experiences the full benefits of an antidepressant. During this time, the patient will be able to rely on their therapist for support. Often the lift in mood provided by an antidepressant will give an individual the boost they need to continue with therapy and work through their underlying issues.

Tyler Stafford