How effective are antidepressants? That's a question that many people with
depression have asked -- and research suggests that the answers aren't simple.
It's a question that's relevant to millions. About one in 10 Americans takes
an antidepressant, now the most commonly prescribed type of drug in the U.S.,
according to research published in 2009 in the Archives of General
Psychiatry. Much of the surge has happened in the past two decades. From
1996 to 2005, the rate of antidepressant use rose from 5.84% to 10.12%.
A controversial new study suggests the widely prescribed antidepressantsProzac, Paxil, and Effexor work no better than placebo for most patients who take them, and many depression experts now cry foul.
But a report recently published in The Journal of the American Medical
Association showed that the drugs work best for very severe cases of
depression and have little or no benefit over placebo (inactive pills) in less
That report isn't the last word on the topic, but it got plenty of media
attention. So much, in fact, that many psychiatrists became concerned that
people would misunderstand the findings and possibly dismiss crucial
But the controversy also creates an opening to get a reality check about the
popular drugs' advantages and limitations, experts tell WebMD.
Here's what those experts said -- and the four questions they recommend you
consider when deciding if an antidepressant is right for you.
The report published in JAMA isn't new research -- it's a pooled
analysis of data from six previously published studies. And it only includes
two types of antidepressants -- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
and older drugs called tricyclics.
In light of those limits, experts interviewed for this story caution against
reading too much into the findings.
"This is the kind of study that really gets misinterpreted by the general
public. It's always frustrating when that happens," says Jennifer Payne, MD,
assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and
director of the Women's Mood Disorders Center.
Some other psychiatrists agree. The report is "very limited," says David
Mischoulon, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School and director of research at Massachusetts General Hospital's Depression
and Clinical Research Program.