We now have solid proof that antidepressants work

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A new study has shown that antidepressants are effective in treating depression. Can we give the people who rely on them a break now, please?

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By Amy Jones on

In news that will make sad-pill poppers across the world go “well, duh”, a study has shown that antidepressants do work. The study analysed data from 522 trials, which involved a total of 116,477 people, and found that 21 common antidepressants were all more effective at reducing the symptoms of depression than placebo pills – from 33 per cent to over 50 per cent more effective, in fact.

This study comes after years and years of debate over the effectiveness and benefits of using antidepressants to treat mental-health problems, and has been welcomed by doctors and psychiatrists across the country. But, I imagine, it’s also going to be a welcome piece of armour for lots of people who quietly depend on this medication to live their lives, and have to defend themselves for it more often than you might expect.

There are the debates on TV and radio over whether or not they should be used. The well-meaning, but clueless, friends and relatives who think that your antidepressants “stop you from being who you really are”. The people who start sentences with “I know antidepressants work, but…” and don’t appreciate that anything that comes after the “but” feels like an attack on the very thing that makes your life feel worth living. And then, there’s things like The Observer’s excerpt of Johann Hari’s new book which asserts that the benefits of antidepressants are grossly overestimated and that doctors hand out tablets like they’re Tic Tacs.

I came off my medication cold-turkey. I’d be fine, right? After all, the evidence Hari presented showed that they probably weren’t helping me, anyway

I don’t think people appreciate how dangerous these sentiments are. Even though Hari’s excerpt was widely discredited by people who know what they’re talking about – Dean Burnett wrote an excellent takedown in The Guardian, if you’re interested – the idea that my antidepressants had stopped working because I’d been on them for so long nestled into my brain and refused to leave. A few days after reading it, on a night when I was tired and alone and struggling, I decided that I should listen to Hari. I threw my 20mg of Citalopram in the bin and came off my medication cold-turkey. I’d be fine, right? After all, the evidence Hari presented showed that they probably weren’t helping me, anyway.

Within days, I was permanently teary. Within a week, I was contemplating suicide. My brain became thick: thinking felt like I was wading through honey, reaching into its depths to try and grasp something I knew was there but I couldn’t see. I developed a strange inability to remember names, even of people I’d known for years. I kept feeling dizzy and faint; sometimes my vision would go in and out of focus, the front of my head feeling like it was bulging and pulsing. Even when these initial side effects wore off, I struggled to cope with the sudden intensity of my emotions and the sudden, gaping hole where all my motivation to stay alive had once been.

About a month after I came off them, a friend told me the story of Nigel the lonely gannet and I broke; I cried so hard and for so long that she made me go outside and walk around until I could think properly again, then quietly asked me to go back to the doctor because she was terrified about the change she’d seen in me since I came off the tablets – the same changes she’d seen in a friend who previously came off their meds cold-turkey and ended up attempting suicide. I went back on the pills that day.

But for a lot of people – not everyone, and not all the time – the drugs do work, so dismissing them is cruel and unhelpful

Two weeks later, I’m finally feeling steady again. Not perfect – Citalopram doesn’t fix my depression, it just levels it out so that I can work on the behavioural changes my therapist helped me come up with – but not actively wanting to die. Which, y’know. I’ll take.

I wouldn’t have come off my tablets if it wasn’t for that article by Hari. I wouldn’t have been so resistant to going on them in the first place if there wasn’t a widespread culture of people slagging off antidepressants and questioning whether or not they work. I’m lucky that I have supportive friends, a husband with a wealth of experience in mental-health treatment, a boss who frequently tells me “you’d have to prise my tablets out of my cold, dead hands”, and that I was able to remind myself that the tablets make a huge improvement to my life. Not everyone is so lucky.

I don’t think medication is the solution to all mental-health problems. There are a million ways to be mentally ill, and what works for one person won’t work for another: I take my medication to help me focus on my therapy, whereas others have been through therapy and still rely on their medication – and probably always will.  There are definitely environmental factors that cause mental-health issues, there are genetic issues to consider, and therapy should have way, way more funding than it does because it’ll help address the underlying issues of the problem as well as the symptoms. But for a lot of people – not everyone, and not all the time – the drugs do work, so dismissing them is cruel and unhelpful. Hopefully the people who like to question their validity will read this study and shut up, and let the people who need them get on with things.


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