Major depression is a serious illness and requires treatment. But does long-term use of psychiatric drugs do more harm than good? The answer to that question matters a great deal for the health of both individuals and society.
Ever since the late 1980s, when antidepressants such as SSRIs, which boost serotonin and SNRIs, which affect the brain’s other neurotransmitters, started hitting the market, the medical community has been prescribing them without the need for a proper psychiatric evaluation. According to The Wall Street Journal, 75% of prescriptions for antidepressants today are written by primary care physicians, most of whom have little training in diagnosis or management of psychiatric disorders.
As previously mentioned, one of the most common drug types for treating depression is Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). Examples of these include Prozac, Zoloft and Sertraline. However, not everyone who is prescribed these drugs has severe depression.
Antidepressants are prescribed to one in ten adults in most developed nations, and prescription rates for depressed young people are climbing in the US and UK. Many people being given these drugs don’t have severe depression, and the effectiveness of the drugs is only slight when compared to placebos in cases of mild or moderate depression.
The standard depression scale rates depression from zero (not depressed) to 52 (most severely depressed). When both drugs and placebos were tested on adults, the average score of the drugs was only two points higher than that of placebos.
A growing body of research now supports the hypothesis that antidepressants worsen the chronicity, if not severity, of depressive features in many subjects and antidepressant therapy is now commonly associated with the poorest outcomes. In a large, retrospective study in the Netherlands of more than 12,000 patients, antidepressant exposure was associated with the worst long-term results.
Although these drugs are generally considered to be safe by the media and amongst medical professionals and patients, a closer look at the evidence suggests otherwise. Antidepressants have serious and potentially fatal adverse effects, cause potentially permanent brain damage, increase the risk of suicide and violent behaviour in both children and adults, and increase the frequency and chronicity of depression. Chronic use of antidepressants also promotes dependency on drugs rather than empowering people to make positive life changes and places a tremendous burden on healthcare systems.
Until we find out why antidepressant prescriptions have skyrocketed, why don’t we use safer options?
This might sound annoyingly simple. However, new clinical applications for depressed patients are showing some promising results. Studies from the University of Exeter have found that daily 30-minute mindfulness meditation sessions are better than drugs or counselling in treating depression.
Three-quarters of patients in one study felt well enough to stop taking antidepressants after four months with no other intervention besides mindfulness-based cognitive therapies.
Physical activity has a powerful effect on mood because of the release of endorphins. Trials have shown that exercise seems to be as good, or maybe even better than drugs for most cases of depression. Exercise also has positive side-effects, such as the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and weight-loss.
Lifestyle interventions alone may not be enough for everyone suffering from depression, especially those diagnosed with major depressive disorders. However, understanding the root cause of depression is a vital first step in being able to cure it. Perhaps depression and anxiety are an early warning signal, an engine light alerting us to a malfunction in our bodies.
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