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How to decide whether to take antidepressants | Psyche

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Guide

How to decide whether to take antidepressants

They’re controversial yet they help countless people. To see if pills are right for you, these are the questions to ask

Photo by Ana-Maria Serrano/Getty

Need to know

If you have been feeling sad for a prolonged period of time and you cannot shake it off – or perhaps you know someone in this situation – you or your friend or relative might have considered asking your family doctor for a prescription for antidepressants. It’s not an easy decision to make. Antidepressants are arguably the most controversial drug treatment in medicine, with print and social media coverage tending to be biased against them. If you believed everything you read or heard, you could come away thinking these drugs are: glorified placebos, highly effective, dangerously addictive, remarkably well tolerated, wildly overprescribed for a range of social ills, or even underprescribed, given the supposed ‘epidemic’ of depression in society. Obviously, these contradictory statements cannot all be true.

In this Guide, I’ve attempted to give you a balanced account of the pros and cons of antidepressants.

Depression is more than everyday sadness

Antidepressants are for the treatment of clinical depression and related problems, not the everyday sadness we all feel from time to time, especially if we’ve been having a hard time. Depression as a psychiatric diagnosis, or what is sometimes called ‘clinical depression’ or ‘major depression’, is defined as being sad most or all of the time and being in this state for at least two weeks. Also, to count as depression, a number of other symptoms besides sadness need to be present (see the acronym below, adapted from this mnemonic), and the patient has to find their symptoms distressing and/or disabling.

DEPRESSION, an acronym:
Depressed mood – most or all of the time, for at least two weeks
Energy – lacking
Pleasure – no more in previously pleasurable activities (‘anhedonia’)
Reduced movement (‘retardation’ – or can be increased, in ‘agitation’)
Eating disturbance – loss of appetite (or overeating, or comfort eating)
Sleep disturbance – insomnia (or occasionally too much sleep)
Suicidal thoughts
Indecision – or reduced concentration
Out of confidence
Negative thoughts – about the self, the world, the future

There are two different definitions of depression – one used by the American Psychiatric Association as laid out in its diagnostic manual (the latest version being the DSM-5) and the other devised by the World Health Organization for the rest of the world (the latest version, ICD-11, came into effect in January 2022). The two approaches have in common that five or more of 10 depression-related symptoms must be present most of the day for at least two weeks to diagnose major depression. Hopelessness about the future is a listed symptom in the ICD-11, but not the DSM-5.

It is a pain that the DSM-5 and ICD-11 definitions of depression differ, but this reminds us that these definitions are guides or indexes – they are not the final word on whether depression should be diagnosed, much less whether it is what you are experiencing.

One advantage of formal diagnostic criteria is that they allow for estimates about the prevalence of different conditions, with the latest figures suggesting 5 per cent of adults worldwide have a diagnosable depressive illness at any point in time.

As you may already know or have experienced first-hand, anxiety is a very common accompaniment to depression – indeed, around 50 per cent of people with one diagnosis will have significant levels of the other. Complicating matters is the fact that depression can cause secondary anxiety, or vice-versa, and that the symptoms of the two diagnoses overlap.

Antidepressants work, so why are they controversial?

Antidepressants were first discovered as possibly helpful for depression in 1951 and introduced into medical practice in 1957. Since then, they have been shown to work, again and again, in randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Despite what some commentators say, overall the evidence that they work for many people is very strong.

Over the years, antidepressants have also been found in clinical trials to be useful treatments for anxiety, pain and other problems. That is why drugs such as imipramine are categorised as antidepressants but used for the treatment of other conditions as well.

All currently licensed antidepressants increase the levels of some of the chemical neurotransmitters – especially serotonin and/or norepinephrine – by which nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other across a gap known as a synapse. At the psychological level, soon after taking antidepressants, people who are depressed will typically begin to process information more positively, such as finding it easier to recall happy memories. At a slower, molecular level, antidepressants seem to stimulate synaptic plasticity and nerve cell growth, thus helping reverse the harmful effects of stress on these processes. Note that these pharmacological, psychological and molecular changes may all work hand in hand to promote recovery from depression.

Given their effectiveness, why are antidepressants so controversial? There is a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and this undoubtedly influences many people’s attitudes to antidepressants. Particularly relevant is the widely held, ill-informed belief that depression is ‘just some sort of sadness’, that it is ‘mental’ rather than physical and therefore not a ‘real’ medical condition that requires treatment. At the other extreme is the view that depression is ‘hopeless’ and either untreatable or requiring of lifelong treatment. Any which way, people who take antidepressants are regularly ‘pill-shamed’ on social media. Partly as a result, people often seem reluctant to mention taking them and how they have contributed to their recovery. Yet, for many people, the drugs are beneficial and in some cases literally a life-saver.

This Guide is not a substitute for first-hand professional medical advice but, if you are considering whether to begin taking antidepressants, it will help you to make a careful, informed decision.

What to do

If you are depressed or anxious, and are considering getting some help or treatment including starting antidepressants, a sensible way to proceed is to ask yourself a series of questions about your experiences and circumstances. To help you, here are some important questions to ask yourself, either alone or with a friend, a relative or a doctor, and some factors to consider in each case:

Do I need or want any treatment at all?

Most cases of depression and anxiety are mild, and most will resolve with time – as people say, time is a great healer. The diagnostic manual of US psychiatry, the DSM-5, states that recovery from major depression begins within three months for 40 per cent of people and within a year for 80 per cent of people.

If there is a particular trigger for your chronic feelings of sadness, such as a stressful life event, you might be better off focusing your efforts on getting relevant practical help, such as extra educational, financial or housing support. Similarly, relationship problems might be best addressed by some form of couples therapy. One tell-tale sign that your main problem is stressful circumstances and not depression per se is to think about whether you are preoccupied by the stressful situation rather than with any symptoms related to depression or anxiety.

Having said that, when the stress of life circumstances feels overwhelming, antidepressants can still offer valuable help by providing you with much-needed relief from depression-related symptoms such as insomnia and fatigue. This is particularly true if you have a history of depression that needed antidepressants before, or if the symptoms persist.

Would I be better off with a talking therapy?

Mild to moderate depression and anxiety are often best treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or some other evidence-based, structured psychotherapy, such as interpersonal therapy (IPT). CBT tends to focus on ways to address patterns of negative thinking, whereas IPT focuses more on difficulties you might be having with other people. Indeed, in England in 2021, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which provides independent, evidence-based guidance to the government, issued a renewed draft guideline for treating depression in adults, which stressed that talking-based treatments should be the first choice for addressing mild to moderate depression.

The problem is finding a trained therapist with the time to treat you. In Edinburgh in Scotland where I work, and where services are relatively good by international standards, there are only a small number of clinical psychologists, nurses or other health professionals who are trained to provide CBT or IPT. Clearly, they could not treat all the estimated 50,000 people with depression/anxiety each year (of a population of roughly 500,000) who might benefit. In fact, each typically treats 10-20 people a week for about 3-6 months – ie, a maximum of about 100 people a year.

Wherever you live in the world, the chances are high that, if you are seeking psychotherapy for mild to moderate depression, you will likely have to find private psychotherapy, if you can afford it. In my experience, most private therapists provide counselling, or what might best be called generic or supportive psychotherapy, often with a psychodynamic orientation. This can still help, especially in those who cannot engage with CBT, but arguably most of the benefit comes from non-specific factors such as ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, general support, and the inculcation of hope. In my experience, they are less likely to offer structured psychotherapies, such as CBT and IPT, which have been shown in multiple clinical trials to have benefits over these non-specific therapeutic factors, as have antidepressants.

There is some evidence that CBT or IPT may provide some greater longer-term benefits than antidepressants. This isn’t surprising if one considers that these approaches give people ways of dealing with depression or anxiety that they can invoke again if they need to. However, it is important not to overstate the reach and benefits of psychotherapy. For instance, my patients with severe depression often find that the effects of psychotherapy tend to fade over time and that they require top-up or ‘booster’ sessions or perhaps a whole new course of therapy.

This ongoing desire for therapy flies in the face of the common (mis)perception that psychotherapy somehow gets to the ‘root of the problem’ of depression in a way that drug treatments cannot. Perhaps this same sentiment feeds the harmful myth that taking antidepressants is ‘the wimp’s way out’ because the person is not facing up to their problems. It’s true that there can be historical roots to many people’s depression, such as childhood sexual or physical abuse, but psychotherapy usually helps rather than ‘cures’ these issues. Psychotherapy can be helpful for those with moderate to severe depression, but that may depend on a high level of therapist experience and expertise.

You should also bear in mind that 30-40 per cent of people do not benefit from psychotherapy, which is about the same as the proportion of patients for whom antidepressants do not help (but, fortunately, most people respond to one or the other or both). And, as with any intervention, talking treatments can do harm as well as good. This is a neglected area of psychotherapy research but, for some perspective, consider data from a recent study of hundreds of people who received therapy for depression or anxiety via the NHS in England, which found that just over 14 per cent of clients reported that they had been made worse in the long term. The risk of harm has long been recognised in the psychodynamic community. Simply put, there are some unfortunate people who have been too damaged by traumatic upbringings to be able to tolerate, let alone benefit from, talking about it. A previous Psyche Guide takes you through the different therapists available and what to discuss in your first session to maximise the chances of a positive outcome.

So, when should I take an antidepressant?

If your depression or anxiety is mild to moderate, and if time and a talking treatment have not helped, and especially if things are getting worse, then you should consider taking an antidepressant. Moreover, if your depression or anxiety is moderate to severe, you should consider taking an antidepressant combined with CBT as your first form of treatment.

This raises the question: how do you know if you are moderately or severely depressed? You could count your symptoms from the acronym in the Need to Know section above, though this is best done by a trained clinician. Or you could fill in a free questionnaire, such as this patient health questionnaire (while this too is designed to be administered by professionals, you can still score it yourself).

In general, the more depressed you are, the more likely you are to benefit from antidepressants. Other markers of a more severe depression include a complete lack of pleasure, feeling emotionally numb or ‘cut off’, agitated, or being markedly slower than usual in your thoughts and movements. I was taught that if a person has the so-called biological or melancholic features of depression – such as disturbances in sleep or appetite, and especially waking early in the morning and feeling at your worst early in the day – then antidepressants are more likely to help. This is a useful rule of thumb, but caution is required because the research evidence for these associations is sparse.

Obviously, if you are too ill to be able to think clearly and comply with the demands of psychotherapy, or would simply prefer an antidepressant, then these are more reasons why you should take one.

Yet another consideration is if you need or want to get better quickly – for example, this might be the case if a person is feeling suicidal, or if their depression is causing urgent employment or relationship issues. Psychotherapy can sometimes work relatively quickly but it tends to take months for a meaningful benefit, whereas antidepressants usually lead to a significant beneficial response in weeks.

Which antidepressant should I take?

This is a decision you need to make carefully with your doctor. However, it might be helpful to go into these discussions with some basic background information on the various options, provided below. Worth remembering is that all the antidepressants that are currently licensed for depression or anxiety have been shown in clinical trials to help more people get better than an inert placebo pill.

The drugs that current evidence suggests are the most effective for depression are the older drugs, such as amitriptyline (a so-called ‘tricyclic’ based on its chemical structure) and escitalopram and paroxetine (known as ‘selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors’, or SSRIs, based on their chemical effects in the brain); and newer drugs, such as mirtazapine (known as an ‘atypical antidepressant’ because it works differently than most others) and venlafaxine (a ‘serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor’, or SNRI, again based on its chemical effects in the brain). Other SSRIs, such fluoxetine and sertraline, are slightly less effective, but also tend to cause fewer side-effects.

For anxiety, duloxetine and venlafaxine (both SNRIs) and escitalopram (an SSRI) are all similarly efficacious, and most people take them without problems. Other options, including mirtazapine, sertraline and fluoxetine, cause few problems and are also effective, although these findings are limited by smaller sample sizes. The sedative antipsychotic drug quetiapine can also be helpful for anxiety and depression, but weight gain can be a problem.

What adverse effects should I expect?

You’ll have noticed I already referred to side-effects or problems a few times. There are many potential side-effects of antidepressants, but most are rare. Some, however, are classed as ‘very common’ (affecting more than 10 per cent of people who take them) or ‘common’ (impacting 1-10 per cent of people). Because of this, people prescribed antidepressants should receive regular medical review, especially in the early stages of treatment, to check that they are not feeling worse on the drugs.

For the SSRIs, these common side-effects include reduced appetite, nausea, ‘tummy upset’ and sexual dysfunction that many, but not most, of the patients I have treated over 30 years told me they have suffered from. My experience is that most people find these problems are usually mild and tend to fade away after the first couple of weeks. SSRIs can also make you feel agitated or ‘wired’ when first consumed, which is why they are usually best taken in the morning with food.

I have found that forewarning patients of these common adverse effects and how to deal with them helps my patients to tolerate the drugs – and perhaps even increases their effectiveness! I suspect, but do not know, that people think I am a better doctor if I tell them what will happen in the first couple of weeks and then it does. If I also tell them, as I typically do, that they are likely to feel better in 2-4 weeks, then perhaps that is also more likely to occur. One could think of this as part of the placebo response, but I think it is one of the non-specific elements of treatment that is part of being a good doctor or therapist, which includes sharing problems and inculcating hope. I also tell my patients with depression and/or anxiety that they will get better, that it is just a matter of time and finding the right treatment – and, thankfully, nearly all of them do recover.

The side-effects profile is quite different for so-called ‘sedative antidepressants’, such as mirtazapine and duloxetine, amitriptyline and clomipramine, which can cause sleepiness. Sedation can actually be a good thing if you are struggling to sleep; if, however, you are left feeling ‘hungover’ the following day, the dose can usually be split into 6pm and 10pm doses to be tolerable, which is an option worth discussing with your doctor. Less easy to deal with is that these sedative antidepressant drugs also tend to increase your desire for ‘fizzy pop’, biscuits, cakes and sweets. However, this is usually manageable if you drink water and eat fruit instead, dull as that may sound.

Will antidepressants interfere with therapy?

Far from it – there is strong evidence from clinical trials that both drug and talking treatments work better when they are combined than either does alone. Although that evidence is for CBT and IPT in particular, I suspect that the general principle holds for all combinations of pharmacological therapy and psychotherapy.

When you think about it, this is not that surprising – even to be expected. Psychotherapy presumably works by changing the way we think about things – what is sometimes called a ‘top-down’ approach. Drugs, on the other hand, impact first on neurobiology in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion. Indeed, as the British neuroscientist Camilla Nord described in a Psyche Idea, her research into brain activation before and after treatment with antidepressant medication or psychotherapy uncovered striking results – there was no overlap between the brain changes, suggesting that the two approaches work differently, yet complementarily.

As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that antidepressants will impair your ability to deal with any psychosocial issues that might have contributed to or been caused by your depression or anxiety. There used to be a theoretical concern that they might interfere with the natural healing process after bereavement, but that does not seem to be the case – and that accords with my clinical experience, too.

Rather, I am all too aware that people are often so overwhelmed by stress, or so exhausted by insomnia, or in such a rut with depression, that taking an antidepressant actually helps them have the energy and motivation required to comply with psychotherapeutic demands.

What should I do if I don’t respond to my antidepressant medication?

Upon beginning treatment for depression or anxiety with an antidepressant, you might experience immediate symptomatic relief, and after a couple of weeks, it is usual to feel a little better. However, getting the full benefits typically takes two to three months for depression and can take even longer for anxiety. So, if at first you don’t respond, it is often worth waiting longer (so long as the side-effects are tolerable).

If you still don’t find any benefit, the next best and easiest thing is to try a higher dose of the same drug you’re taking already, which is something to discuss with your doctor. To give you some context, a family doctor will often start a patient on 20mg of fluoxetine or 50mg of sertraline, which can and often does work but, for the patients I see in a psychiatry clinic who have moderate to severe problems, a higher dose is usually required.

If a higher dose of the same drug does not work, or seems unlikely to, your doctor might propose trying another antidepressant of a different type. Based on my personal experience and some limited data, I’d say around 10 per cent of patients find they need to try a third or even fourth antidepressant before they find the one that suits them. This is also a good time to add in a structured psychotherapy, such as CBT or IPT, if you haven’t already.

Most people will respond to these manoeuvres. If you are still showing no signs of recovery, all the mental health professionals you’ve been consulting should review the situation and reconsider your diagnosis. Perhaps there is an ongoing stressor or unaddressed psychosocial issue that is still problematic. One issue to consider is that ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol or illicit drugs can prolong depression and interfere with the potential benefits of antidepressants.

How and when should I stop taking antidepressants?

Nobody likes taking pills or wants to do so for any longer than necessary. But, if you respond to an antidepressant, there is a lot of evidence that staying on them for a year or more will significantly reduce the chances of relapsing and becoming unwell again.

In a systematic review of 31 randomised controlled trials involving 4,410 participants, 41 per cent of people taking a placebo became depressed again, on average, compared with 18 per cent of people taking an antidepressant. In other words, staying on antidepressants more than halves the risk of relapse.

However, most people want to stop their antidepressant pills as soon as possible after getting well. They feel better and believe it should be safe to stop the pills – but that is often not the case, especially with moderate to severe depression because of the major risk of relapse.

Some of my patients opt to stay on antidepressants for years rather than risk becoming depressed again. As I tell them, there are no known adverse physical effects of staying on antidepressants in the long term. And, as they tell me, it provides assurance and reassurance that they will remain well. As one patient of mine put it:

I never want to feel as disgusting as depression makes me feel. Never again. So I’ll keep taking the pills.

When the time does come that you and your doctor are agreed that it is safe to stop taking the pills, be prepared that you might experience an ‘antidepressant withdrawal syndrome’. Do not be alarmed – this is not the same as ‘dependence’ or ‘addiction’ and is not unique to antidepressants. There are several drugs for ‘physical’ illnesses, such as the beta-blocker propranolol and the steroid prednisolone that also need to be withdrawn slowly, but no-one ever says patients are addicted to them. Usually, any withdrawal effects from antidepressants are mild and last only a few days. If they persist, it can be difficult to distinguish them from symptoms of a relapse of depression or anxiety.

You should review your experiences with your doctor, but my clinical rule of thumb is that if you start to feel as you did before treatment in terms of your mood and other symptoms, that is probably because you’ve stopped taking an effective drug treatment; on the other hand, if you feel differently than you did before, and in particular have symptoms commonly associated with drug withdrawal rather than anxiety or depression (such as ‘electric shock’ sensations, flu-like symptoms or sweating) then you are probably experiencing a withdrawal reaction that will soon pass.

If you have been on an antidepressant for months or years, then your doctor will advise that you need to reduce the dose slowly. How you do that should be discussed with your doctor, but halving the dose every couple of months and then reviewing things to check it’s OK to halve again usually works well in my experience. This is particularly true if you are on paroxetine or venlafaxine, which are more likely to cause withdrawal reactions than the other antidepressants. I also advise my patients to phase out antidepressants at a relatively good, stress-free time in their lives, perhaps at a time of year such as the spring or summer, when everyone tends to feel a bit brighter.

How should I deal with antidepressant stigma and pill-shaming?

Many ill-informed people seem to think that antidepressant use stems from emotional weakness, or an inability to deal with problems, and that people with depression should somehow ‘snap out of it’. Such mistaken ideas sometimes co-occur with a lack of belief in the therapeutic efficacy of antidepressants, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Although it is increasingly well recognised that people on antidepressants may face judgmental remarks from friends, family and colleagues, I am not aware of any good guides on how to deal with this. My advice would be to explain calmly that your depression is distressing and disabling, that the drugs do work, the side-effects can be managed, and that you won’t be taking the pills forever because you will phase them out once you are well again.

To my mind, the stigma of antidepressants is closely related to the broader stigma of depression and of all mental illness. The more people can be open about their illness and how they benefited from drug treatment, the less stigmatised depression and antidepressants will be. People who have written and spoken openly about their use of antidepressants include the eminent biologist Lewis Wolpert in Malignant Sadness (1999); the writer Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon (2001) and, more recently, the science writer Alex Riley in A Cure for Darkness (2021). Celebrities who have spoken about their positive experiences of antidepressants include the Canadian actress Annie Murphy and the US singer and actress Selena Gomez.

Besides therapy and pills, what else can I do to help?

I’m sure there are many things you have tried already. Comments such as ‘Just pull yer socks up’ and ‘Try a bit harder’ are part of the harmful, stereotypical blaming that occurs too often in the context of depression and anxiety. If you could somehow make yourself better, you would have! Indeed, most folks I’ve treated have tried to try harder, but have come up against the limitations of their condition. Usually, what you need to do, as difficult as it can be, is to disengage from your depression or anxiety, distract yourself from thinking about it too much, and do other things.

As I tell all my patients, there are ‘good common sense’ changes that just about everyone can adopt to promote recovery. We humans are creatures of habit and social animals, and among the daily routines that can help are: getting up at a regular time, getting out of the house for some exercise, even if just once around the block, and meeting up with someone for a chat.

More formal evidence-based approaches for depression include physical activity and mental exercises, such as meditation; and, for anxiety, there are various relaxation and other worry management approaches. Mindfulness meditation may have a particular role to play in reducing people’s chances of becoming depressed again. Physical exercise has a moderate treatment effect and a small preventative effect for depression. Yoga and tai chi are also worth considering, but I suspect that any form of exercise is the key rather than any particular approach.

Key points – How to decide whether to take antidepressants

  1. Depression is more than everyday sadness. If you’ve been feeling down most of the time for more than two weeks, you might be depressed.
  2. Antidepressants are controversial but they work. Despite what you might have heard, the research evidence for the effectiveness of antidepressants is very strong.
  3. Decide whether you need any treatment at all. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress, it’s worth considering whether your priority should be to seek practical support.
  4. Consider talking therapy first if your depression is mild to moderate. The challenge is finding an available, suitable therapist who is trained in CBT or a similar approach.
  5. Try antidepressants if therapy didn’t help or your depression is moderate to severe. The more serious your depression (online questionnaires can help you assess this), the more likely that antidepressants will help.
  6. Familiarise yourself with the antidepressants that are available. The options available vary in their reported effectiveness and likelihood of provoking side-effects.
  7. Understand the possible side-effects. Most side-effects are rare. Common ones, such as nausea, are usually mild and soon pass.
  8. Antidepressants do not interfere with therapy. Far from it – there’s evidence that therapy and pills both work more effectively in combination.
  9. Don’t expect an instant benefit. The full beneficial effects usually take a few weeks or months to manifest.
  10. Don’t rush to stop taking the pills. Relapse is a risk, as are withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve been on the drugs for months or years, reduce your dose slowly.
  11. Prepare to deal with pill shaming. Explain calmly that your depression is distressing and disabling, and that the drugs do help.
  12. Use lifestyle changes to further aid your recovery. I’m sure there are many things you have tried already, but remember that regular exercise and socialising are good for mental health.

Learn more

Advice for specific demographic groups

The advice above applies to most people, but there are a few special considerations for those of you who are young, pregnant, old or physically ill.

Children and young people

All doctors are rightly reluctant to prescribe any medicine, and especially psychoactive drugs, to the young. For children who suffer from depression, which does happen, albeit more rarely than in adolescents and adults, there is some evidence that treatments involving the whole family are more effective than individual therapy for the child. For depressed adolescents, studies generally show that CBT and IPT are more effective than control treatments such as generic, supportive psychotherapy. If antidepressants are required, as they sometimes are, fluoxetine is the antidepressant with the greatest evidence for effectiveness. Any treatment usually reduces suicidality, but it’s important to be aware that, in a minority of young people (up to the age of 25), SSRIs may increase their thoughts of suicide and their likelihood of self-harming. If a youth is prescribed an antidepressant, it is vital that they are monitored to ensure this is not happening and to take suitable action if it is.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Becoming pregnant and giving birth are usually happy events but are somewhat idealised in human societies. Medical complications during pregnancy and childbirth are common but, even when they don’t occur, many women become depressed or anxious during pregnancy and in the months afterwards. No one wants to expose pregnant women and unborn children to any drug, but sometimes it is necessary. About 10 per cent of women suffer from postnatal depression in the weeks following birth that is severe enough to potentially hinder bonding with the child or harm the child’s subsequent development – and therefore merits treatment. The usual way of making a balanced decision is that treatment is justified when the risks of doing so are fewer than the risks (to mother and foetus) of not treating.

There is some evidence that taking SSRIs early in pregnancy very slightly increases the risk of your baby developing heart defects, spina bifida or cleft lip. If you are in this situation, be reassured that most antidepressants are safe for both mothers and babies, especially after the first three months or so of pregnancy. Babies who have been exposed to SSRIs in the womb can be a bit ‘jittery’ for a few days after birth, but that doesn’t cause any long-term problems. Similarly, breastfeeding is thought to be safe while on citalopram or sertraline, and is known to be safe while on paroxetine or amitriptyline/clomipramine because too little drug is present in breastmilk to be harmful.

The elderly and infirm

Family doctors have long been in the habit of prescribing low doses of the older tricyclic antidepressants, especially amitriptyline, to help older people with various problems such as musculoskeletal pain. Although the use of lower doses of antidepressants in this way is not strongly supported by clinical trials, they will help you sleep and might reduce your pain sensitivity. However, if you are elderly or have a physical illness, you should be particularly careful about taking antidepressants and especially tricyclics, such as amitriptyline, because they can cause more adverse effects and/or interact with other medications you might be taking. Other rare side-effects of antidepressants to discuss with your doctor if you are elderly or physically frail include low blood pressure and other cardiovascular effects, which might increase your risk of falls.

Links & books

This fact sheet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists provides further background information on antidepressants.

This Aeon Essay, by the molecular immunologist Vasco M Barreto, presents an impassioned personal and scientific defence of the effectiveness of antidepressants.

This BBC podcast from 2020, presented by the comedian Jacob Hawley, takes an honest look at the difficulties of accessing therapy for depression and the pros and cons of taking antidepressants.

It can be very difficult for people who have not had severe depression to appreciate just how awful it is. My favourite such memoir is the book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1989) by the Pulitzer Prize-winning US novelist William Styron. For those who have felt this depressed, it can be comforting to read about other people’s experiences and recovery from depression. Styron benefitted from hospitalisation rather than psychotherapy or medication, but he acknowledges that they are often very effective for others.

The podcast The Great God of Depression, from 2018, further explores Styron’s life and depression and how his circumstances became interwoven with those of the neurologist and writer Alice Flaherty, and her own mental health problems.

This podcast from The Naked Scientists explores some of the issues around coming off antidepressants.

This podcast from The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health features Cathryn Lewis, professor of genetic epidemiology and statistics at King’s College London, and provides an excellent introduction to the interplay of genetic and environmental risk factors for mental health conditions, especially depression.

The website of the mental health charity Mind has a particularly good, detailed and helpful section on taking antidepressants during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

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2 February 2022

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