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Do antidepressants really help depression?


It’s a hard pill to swallow. 

The Prozac generation is responding to a controversial new study from University College London that debates the efficiency of antidepressants, suggesting there’s no evidence that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance and negating the decades-old notion that a serotonin deficiency is the reason for the mental health disorder gripping an estimated 21 million Americans.

“It is always difficult to prove a negative, but I think we can safely say that after a vast amount of research conducted over several decades, there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities, particularly by lower levels or reduced activity of serotonin,” the study’s lead author, Joanna Moncrieff, a Professor of Psychiatry at UCL, said in a statement.

Matt Heuther in his office.
Matt Heuther, diagnosed with ADHD, depression, anxiety and OCD 11 years ago, thought he couldn’t do anything about the biochemical brain imbalance.
Courtesy Matt Heuther

The study draws into question the efficacy of antidepressants, which millions of Americans have come to rely on.

“Many people take antidepressants because they have been led to believe their depression has a biochemical cause, but this new research suggests this belief is not grounded in evidence,” said Moncrieff.

The findings weren’t shocking to Maggs Baker, a 37-year-old who has been on and off meds like Prozac and Lexapro since she was 20.

“When I read the study, I said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me.’ It’s another thing that big pharma has been pushing on us for such a long time,” the single mom and business owner from Austin, told The Post. “All of these years I took a pill because my doctors kept telling me my brain just needed a boost because of my ‘chemical imbalance.’ I believed them and I ended up staying depressed for a decade longer than I needed to,” said Baker, who weaned herself off them in March with holistic therapy.

“I just craved getting off of this hamster wheel – feeling bad, getting more medicine from the doctor but because I’d be on antidepressants for so long I thought that was just the solution,” Baker said. 

Karissa Karmali outside near her home in Ontario Canada.
Karissa Karmali, 32, from Ontario, Canada, thinks there are times when meds helped her but believes there were also years that she didn’t need them and wasted her energy on them.
Courtesy of Karisa Karmali

Matt Huether, 35, a psychiatrist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, anxiety and OCD 11 years ago, can relate. 

“I thought these diagnoses were a life sentence because I believed they were a symptom of a biochemical brain imbalance that I could do nothing about,” Huether said. He was prescribed numerous antidepressants, but they didn’t work for him.

“Medication for me gave me uncharacteristic suicidal thoughts that I hadn’t hadn’t had until started taking them,” he said. “I began working through my problems in counseling and found the help I needed, by discovering my innate resilience to overcome my negative emotions. I found out they were related to troubling circumstances, not because of a broken brain.”

Karissa Karmali, 32, from Ontario, Canada, thinks there are times when meds helped her but believes there were also years that she didn’t need them and wasted her energy on them.

“I went on a stress leave for work because I couldn’t cope with the medication trials,” she said. “I’m one month in to this drug that [finally] works – it’s a very new drug.  Fast forward to a month ago I started on a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI). It’s an activating drug but it took seven years to figure out.”

Karissa weightlifting.
Karmali has found exercise to be a refuge from her anxiety and depression. She started taking a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI). “It’s an activating drug but it took seven years to figure out.”
Courtesy of Karissa Karmali

Some researchers, meanwhile, say due to the complexities of depression, ruling out serotonin imbalances may not be the answer, and certainly not a reason for someone to stop taking prescribed medication. And despite the study, psychologists say antidepressant medications have proven track records of helping patients.

“We still have robust clinical trials showing that SSRIs can be effective,” said Thea Gallagher, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.  “The study should help people who are just on an SSRI, just on medication, to also know that there are things you can do cognitively, emotionally to understand the things that are impacting your mood. I don’t think it’s just about running to get off your SSRI, but realizing the multiple factors and avenues we can do to better our mental health.”

Neha Harve in San Francisco.
Neha Harve said she feels like a better version of herself after getting prescribed antidepressants to cope with her anxiety and depression.
Courtesy of Neha Harve

Neha Harve, who works in tech public relations in San Francisco, feels like a better version of herself after getting prescribed antidepressants to cope with her anxiety and depression in 2017 after moving from her home in India to the U.S. and feeling lonely.

“Looking back, I don’t think therapy would have been enough,” Harve, 27, said. She had difficulty concentrating, answering emails and meeting deadlines back when she was in college. She also lacked motivation.

 “It took about a month to get used to my SSRI, but I felt so much better honestly. It really did make a difference in all aspects. I was a lot of happier which was not something that only I observed but people around me saw too.”



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