Antidepressants are a class of medications used to manage several mental health issues, and are the quintessential class of pharmacotherapeutic agents prescribed for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Depression is the most common mood disorder in the United States, with a prevalence rate of 14.4%. It affects millions of Americans every year and is a lifelong mental health disorder that can severely impact your ability to work and engage in healthy social relationships. It is most commonly diagnosed among adults between the ages of 18 and 64, but most people experience the onset of depressive symptoms in their 20s.1
In many cases, a combination of therapies will be used to treat depression. This therapeutic strategy may include psychotherapy (talk therapy), a complementary self-care regimen, pharmacotherapy (antidepressant medications), or any combination thereof. Medications commonly used to treat MDD include:2
This article discusses in more detail these medications and others, including information about:
The first drugs designed specifically as antidepressants were the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). In 1952, Irving J. Selikoff and Edward Robitzek began conducting clinical studies of patients who were given isoniazid (a hydrazine antibiotic). Researchers stumbled upon the mood-boosting effects of the drug while researching new ways to treat patients suffering from tuberculosis. During their clinical trials, the researchers noticed a significant improvement in patients’ moods and began investigating the drug’s efficacy of treating depression.3
During this time, researchers discovered that another hydrazine compound—called iproniazid—had an even greater effect on elevating a patient’s mood. They noted that those who took the drug experienced increased appetite, energy, weight gain, and better sleep. Soon afterward, the term antidepressant was coined, and researchers began studying the efficacy of different drugs among patients with depression. What they found was that the MAOI (iproniazid) lead to increases of serotonin levels in the brain, which significantly improved the person’s social functioning.4
In 1957, at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, data on the effects of iproniazid as an antidepressant were presented. More studies were conducted, and within a year more than 400,000 patients affected by depression had been prescribed the drug for treatment. This opened the door for a new class of drugs (later known as MAOIs) designed specifically to treat depression. The demand for MAOIs was enormous because up until that point, there were no pharmacotherapeutic interventions for people with depression.3 Iproniazid was introduced onto the market, but quickly withdrawn in 1961 due to adverse effects among patients, including “cheese reaction”, which will be discussed later.4
Despite the negative reaction to MAOIs and their efficacy, the drug was brought back onto the market by members of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, who believed that the benefits of the drug heavily outweighed the risk. Today, MAOIs are not commonly used as the first line of defense against depression. Subsequent clinical trials would challenge their efficacy for the treatment of major depression compared with the then-newer tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).3 Today, their use has almost entirely been replaced by that of newer-generation antidepressants such as the SSRIs and SNRIs.
A lot of research has been done since MAOIs were first introduced onto the market, and today there are many types of antidepressants available to treat depression, including:
Antidepressants are mainly prescribed to treat the symptoms of extreme sadness and exhaustion most often associated with depression. As a class of drugs, antidepressants are thought to work by restoring a person’s emotional balance via specific neurotransmitter activity so that they can function in their day-to-day lives. People may also be prescribed these medications to relieve anxiety, sleeping issues, suicidal thoughts, and restlessness.6
So how do antidepressants actually work? In our brains, certain nerve cells, or neurons, interact with each other via the release of signaling molecules called neurotransmitters. When these chemicals (e.g., serotonin and dopamine) are out of balance, it can lead to mental health problems such as depression. Although scientists continue to study and learn more about the exact mechanisms of depression, experts believe that when a person is depressed, there may actually be a problem occurring between interconnected neurons. Taking medications, such as SSRIs or TCAs, can help increase the availability of certain neurotransmitters throughout the brain to improve the symptoms of depression and some other mental health conditions.6
Generally, antidepressants are taken on a daily basis. During the first weeks and months of taking one, the primary goal is to manage depressive symptoms. It’s not always the case that symptoms will disappear completely, but they should improve and feel manageable. To achieve this, most people stay on their medication for a year or two, after which your doctor will assess your condition and make a recommendation for the next phase of treatment. Staying on your antidepressant consistently helps prevent symptoms from reappearing or becoming unmanageable. Those who are ready to discontinue medication (at their doctor’s approval) do well to continue with individual therapy or counseling to manage any minor symptoms that linger. Regardless of what works best for you, this decision should always be made between you and your doctor.6
As you near the end of treatment, your doctor will gradually reduce your dose over a period of several weeks in a process known as tapering. Though antidepressants are not thought to result in the development of physical dependence in the same manner as some prescription medications, such as sedatives, while you taper, you may experience side effects such as trouble sleeping, nausea, or restlessness. This is normal, and it is important that you adhere to whatever regime your doctor has given to you even if you experience these problems. Sometimes, people stop taking their medication as soon as they start feeling better, but this can increase your chances of the depressive symptoms returning. Your improved mood and energy levels are a sign that your medication is working and that you should continue taking it—not that you no longer need it.6
It is important to keep regular appointments with your doctor while you are taking antidepressants. There are many variables that come into play when taking a medication for a mental health disorder, so it’s essential to talk with your doctor about whether your symptoms have improved or worsened, or whether you are experiencing any side effects. Depending on how you are affected by the medication, your doctor may adjust your dose, but you should never adjust the dose on your own. The primary risk of doing this is that the medication may not work as it is intended, and you could experience unpleasant side effects.6
It is often common for people to turn to negative or maladaptive “self-medicating” activities like drinking alcohol or using drugs to temporarily avoid experiencing the feelings of depression. Other self-medicating activities might include the misuse of prescription medications, self-harming behaviors, or engaging in risky sexual activities, such as anonymous sex with multiple partners.
The safest and most effective way to treat depression is to see a trained medical or mental health professional to receive behavioral therapy, medication, or both. Some people object to taking medication for a mental health disorder because they believe it’s a problem of that can be overcome by sheer will. However, depression is thought to be a disease of the brain that arises from impaired neurochemical functioning. Medication is designed to help correct this brain imbalance. It is often a first step to stabilize symptoms with an antidepressant so you can more effectively take part in other therapeutic options, such as psychotherapy or peer support groups.
It is important to remember that not everyone responds positively to antidepressants, so you should share your full medical history with your doctor before you begin any medication and work closely with an experienced psychiatrist to determine the best way to manage your depression. Like all drugs, these medications can have a number of side effects that could be uncomfortable enough to prompt you to discontinue use or switch to another medication. Unfortunately, side effects often lead people to stop refilling their prescriptions or to stop taking their medication once they start feeling better. In fact, studies show that many patients take their antidepressant for 14 weeks or less.7 What research shows is that long-term treatment is necessary in order prevent depression from returning. Nevertheless, if you are experiencing adverse reactions to medication, speak to your doctor about your options.
Compared to choosing common methods of self-medicating, such as abusing alcohol, gambling, or compulsive sexual behavior, a treatment course with an option to include antidepressants and ongoing therapy presents the wiser choice.
Depression is a naturally fluctuating condition. Many people begin feeling much better after taking medication for a few weeks and believe that they can stop using antidepressants as a result. However, these early improvements in mood are simply an acute response to the medication and not a true remission.7 Studies show that stopping antidepressant medication prematurely can actually increase the risk of relapse or recurrence, especially when the withdrawal is abrupt.
When people use antidepressants consistently for a long time, it can protect them from experiencing the following:7
The question of when to stop taking antidepressants is one that every person must consider at some point. Because complete remission of depressive symptoms is the goal of therapy, it is important to confirm that your depression has sufficiently resolved before you discontinue your medication. Your doctor will work with you to determine the severity and improvement of your depression using clinical scales. New recommendations state that treatment should be continued for 9 months to prevent relapse, while other experts believe that medication should continue anywhere between 3 years to a lifetime.7
Most drugs use the term withdrawal syndrome when referring to stopping use of a drug. However, in the case of antidepressants, experts prefer the term discontinuation syndrome since the effects of stopping TCAs, MAOIs, SRIs, SSRIs, and SNRIs are usually mild and not long-lasting. In most cases, drug withdrawal symptoms peak in the first week and gradually fade away, however, discontinuation symptoms differ depending on the drug taken and can range widely in their severity.7,8
Some of the discontinuation syndrome symptoms you may experience include:7,9
Depression affects every person differently, but a few common signs of the disorder include:10
Fortunately, depression can be treated, starting by making an appointment with your primary care physician and asking for a referral to a mental health clinician or a psychiatrist. Having an open conversation with your doctor will help them refer you to the appropriate mental health professional.
If you do not have a primary health care provider or you do not feel comfortable visiting with one, a few other places you can go to get help for depression include:
During your visit with your doctor, they may check to see if you have other health conditions that need to be addressed. For example, a thyroid disease can lead to depression or worsen symptoms.
Getting the help you need will improve not only your life, but those closest around you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your family, friends, neighbors, community, or religious leaders for support as you begin working through your depression. It can be scary and overwhelming to admit you have a mental health problem, but it is an important and necessary step to healing.
Once you have gone through the appropriate steps to get treatment for depression and are managing the symptoms well with your treatment team, there are healthy ways to continue to take care of yourself and keep your depression at bay.
In some cases, individuals are able to lessen the impact of their depression by making certain healthy choices in their daily routines. Taking some time to look at areas of your life that may be causing you stress can reveal where to make adjustments. Take an inventory of your physical, emotional, spiritual, economic, and social wellbeing and go from there.
Ways that you can practice self-care while you are being treated for depression and afterward might include:
Explore activities to help improve your mood, including: