Anyone can develop depression. But, treatment is effective in about 80% of identified cases, when treatment is provided. Psychotherapy and medication are the two primary treatment approaches. Antidepressant medications can make psychotherapy more effective, for some people. Someone who is too depressed to talk, for instance, can’t get much benefit from psychotherapy or counseling; but often, the right medication will improve symptoms so that the person can respond better.
This page explains many issues related to the treatment of depression with medication. It is intended to help you understand how and why drugs can be used as part of the treatment of depression.
It is important for you to be well informed about medications for depression, if you are taking any of these medications, but this is not a “do-it-yourself” manual.
Self-medication can be dangerous. Interpretation of both the signs and symptoms of depression, and identification of possible side effects, are jobs for the professional. The prescription and management of medication, in all cases, must be done by a responsible physician working closely with the patient, his/her psychologist, and sometimes the patient’s family. This is the only way to ensure that the most effective use of medication is achieved with minimum risk of side effects or complications.
Symptom Relief, Not Cure
Just as aspirin can reduce a fever without clearing up the infection that causes it, psychotherapeutic medications act by controlling symptoms. Like most drugs used in medicine, they correct or compensate for some malfunction in the body. Psychotherapeutic medications do not cure depression. In many cases, these medications can help a person get on with life despite some continuing mental pain and difficulty coping with problems. For example, antidepressants can lift the dark, heavy moods of depression. The degree of response ranging from little relief of symptoms to complete remission depends on a variety of factors related to the individual and the particular disorder being treated.
How long someone must take a psychotherapeutic medication depends on the disorder. Many depressed and anxious people may need medication for a single period perhaps for several months and then never have to take it again. For some depressions, medication may have to be taken indefinitely or, perhaps, intermittently.
Like any medication, psychotherapeutic medications do not produce the same effect in everyone. Some people may respond better to one medication than another. Some may need larger dosages than others do. Some experience annoying side effects, while others do not. Age, sex, body size, body chemistry, physical illnesses and their treatments, diet, and habits such as smoking, are some of the factors that can influence a medication’s effect.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD