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How to Take an Antidepressant Part 1

How to Take an Antidepressant Part 1
Evidence indicates that all of the available antidepressants on the market have a high efficacy rate. The only area where the drugs do differ, is in the side effects they create. Side effects have become a central consideration in the new approach to depression treatment.

By:Hara Estroff Marano

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Years ago, Prozac launched a revolution. It rendered depression a disorder that was finally safely treatable. The torrent of prose hailing Prozac and its chemical kin eventually made the mental illness dinner-party discourse. Today, a much quieter revolution in treatment is taking place. It, too, has its origins in Prozac and its siblings, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Fifteen years of experience with reasonably safe treatments has given the mental health world a new understanding of the disorder and its true course: It’s no longer enough to merely treat depression; it’s necessary to banish it.

Increasingly, the aim of treatment is not to make patients better but to make them completely well. In the absence of full remission from an episode of depression, the disorder tends to recur. What’s more, studies now show that the longer patients remain sick, the harder it is for them to recover completely.

“It became very clear over the past several years that people who don’t achieve full remission are at high risk for relapse and for doing poorly,” says Jonathan Alpert, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the depression research program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Even if they don’t have a full relapse, they don’t do well in social and occupational function.”

There is no magic bullet; evidence indicates that the available antidepressants are equally effective. All of the drugs get 70 percent of people better within six to ten weeks, according to David Dunner, M.D., director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression at the University of Washington. However, “better” does not necessarily mean symptom-free. “There isn’t any difference among the drugs regarding that.”

Where the drugs do differ, however, is in the side effects they create, especially in the long haul. Side effects have become a central consideration in the new approach to depression treatment.

Long-term treatment is also critical. Data indicate that individuals should be treated for at least nine months following their first acute episode. If they have chronic depression—an episode lasting two years or more—they need to be treated for two years after remission. “And if they have recurrent depression marked by multiple episodes, perhaps forever,” notes Dunner.

However, the average duration of a prescription is about 100 days. “It’s a serious problem,” Dunner points out. “We’re not treating people nearly long enough.”

Nor is treatment aggressive enough, according to Alpert: “Really pushing for remission may mean using two antidepressants at once or pushing the dose up higher than one would normally use.”

Pick Your Pill

For many experts, the most sensible approach to selecting an antidepressant is to factor in the presence of associated or co-occurring conditions. Anxiety disorders, for example, commonly accompany depression. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been well studied for the major anxiety disorders: panic, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“For someone who has depression and social phobia, it’s reasonable to use a medication whose effectiveness has been well documented for both disorders,” reports Alpert. The data also suggest that SSRIs are “reasonable first choices” for those with eating disorders.

But antidepressants don’t work if people don’t take them. Patients have to be willing to put up with side effects that range from drowsiness to seizures. As true as that is for short-term treatment, it’s even more the case with long-term treatment. “The issue is, what can we do to get these patients to stay on the drugs for the length of time the evidence now suggests is best?” explains Dunner.

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