Do antidepressants provide psychosomatic improvement?

Despite all the hype surrounding antidepressants and their effectiveness, the AP has reported on a new study from the University of Hull in Britain that says antidepressants only help severely depressed people and “work no better than placebos in many patients.”

The drugs used in the study: Prozac (fluoxetine), Effexor (venlafaxine), Paxil/Seroxat (paroxetine), and Serzone (nefazodone).

Irving Kirsch, who headed the study, said: “Although patients get better when they take antidepressants, they also get better when they take a placebo, and the difference in improvement is not very great. This means that depressed people can improve without chemical treatments.” (AP)

This is a pretty controversial finding considering the widespread use of antidepressants among those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression and other forms of mental illness, i.e. anxiety.

According the NIH, depression (the clinical term is major depressive disorder) affects an estimated 14.8 million American adults. CNN cites a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says 2.4 billion drugs were prescribed in 2005; of those, 118 million were antidepressants. I can only imagine as “awareness” of depression increases, the number of prescribed antid’s has increased as well.

Adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2000.

Between 1995 and 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the use of these drugs rose 48 percent, the CDC reported.

Many psychiatrists see this statistic as good news — a sign that finally Americans feel comfortable asking for help with psychiatric problems. (CNN)

CNN quoted Dr. Kelly Posner, an assistant professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, who said that “25 percent of adults will have a major depressive episode sometime in their life, as will 8 percent of adolescents.” If 25 percent of adults have a “major depressive episode,” does that mean that those 25 percent will require antidepressants as well? I’m concerned about the relatively high number for adolescents. I’m not a fan of throwing pills at growing children.

In light of the U of Hull study, the first course of treatment regarding depression should be non-medicated therapy of some kind. Whether it be “talk” therapy or cognitive behavior therapy, tackling depression really should first be treated with psychologic therapy. Posner says “25 percent of adults will have a major depressive episode.” Major depressive episode does not equal clinical depression or major depressive disorder, for that matter. A major depressive episode could mean anything: bereavement, loss of employment, or a difficult situation without an immediate resolution. I am strongly against prescribing antidepressants to help people cope with “normal” life events. People feel as though that their grief is too much to bear so they go to the doctor in the hopes that an antidepressant will help “dull” their emotions. I can only hope that a doctor will be able to differentiate between true clinical depression and a difficult situation that could be helped without the use of psychiatric medication.

P.S. I looked up Dr. Posner’s conflicts of interest and they were “TBD.” I would feel better had it listed “no conflicts of interest to disclose.”

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