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When Do Antidepressants Work?

OPB | May 11, 2011 9:25 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 10:06 p.m.

Award-winning science journalist Robert Whitaker has a lot to say about psychiatric drugs. In his latest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, he argues that many patients medicated for schizophrenia, depression, bipolar illness and ADHD fare worse in the long run than those who are not medicated.

We could cover a lot of ground with him — and there’s lots of interest in what he has to say in expectation of the Rethinking Pyschiatry Sympsoium he’ll be a part of in Portland later this week — but we’re going to focus on one main question: What are the benefits and drawbacks of using medicine to treat depresssion?

According to Whitaker:

In severe cases, you do see that people benefit from antidepressants, and that shows up consistently. But you still have to raise the question, even in that severe group: What happens to those medicated patients in the long term, compared to what happened in previous times? One thing that surprised me, looking at the epidemiological literature from the pre-antidepressant era, is that even severely depressed, hospitalized patients could with time expect to get well, and most did. Today, however, there’s a high incidence of patients on long-term drug therapy that become chronically ill.

He says he’s not anti-drug… he just believes that antidepressants should be used in a “selective, cautious manner” for the short term.

What’s your experience? Do you take antidepressants? Have they helped — or hurt — you? Would you describe your depression as mild, moderate, or severe? What else do you do to manage it?


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