By Kayt Sukel
Antidepressant use is on the rise— nearly 1 in 10 Americans are currently prescribed some type of antidepressant medication. With such an uptick in use, some misconceptions about what these drugs can and can’t do are bound to arise.
Here are five of the most common myths regarding antidepressant use—and the truth behind the rumors.
1. Antidepressant medication is addictive. Bradley Gaynes, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina, says that he’s often asked by patients whether they can become dependent on an antidepressant drug. He says the concern is understandable: many anxiety, sleep, and pain medications can be habit forming. But he says patients shouldn’t worry. Antidepressants are not addictive.
“It’s not the case. Antidepressants just aren’t a medication you can physiologically become dependent on,” Gaynes says. “It’s not how they work.”
2. Antidepressant medication will work immediately. Gaynes says patients prescribed an antidepressant for the first time also often have a misconception about how long it takes for them to start
“People think they should be able to feel better in just a couple of days. They get quick responses from sleeping aids or pain medications and think antidepressants will do the same,” he says. “But because of the way antidepressant medications work, it can take three to five weeks before a patient will see clinical benefits.”
That said, finding the right medication can be difficult. Research shows it often takes two to three tries before a patient receives the medication that will put his or her depression into remission. But thanks to pharmacogenomics (the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs), genetic testing can reduce this trial-and- error process, and a patient shouldn’t hesitate to contact their doctor if they go beyond the normal trial period without seeing results.
3. The side effects are worse than the depression—and, once experienced, will remain as long as a patient takes the drug. As with any drug, the side effects experienced with antidepressant drugs can vary widely from patient to patient. Some may see significant effects, others won’t. But for those who do experience side effects, Gaynes says, most of the time, they don’t last. And again, pharmacogenomic tests like GeneSight can lead health care providers to medications that are less likely to cause side effects in an individual patient.
“A patient will often start noticing side effects in the first week. But for most folks, those effects actually go away in a week or do,” he says. “When you are taking the medication, the body is acclimating to this new biologically active compound in the body. Once the body re-equilibrates, and gets used to the drug, the side effects usually go away.”
4. Antidepressant drugs will change my personality. This is also a popular myth, he says. But one that people shouldn’t be too concerned about.
“What antidepressants do is help fix the things that may be distressing you, affecting your concentration, pulling down your energy level, or lowering your mood,” he says. “But taking an antidepressant drug is not going to make you a different person — it won’t change your moral structure, your beliefs, or your understanding of the world. It won’t have you losing control of who you are or what you do.”
5. Antidepressant drugs will make you happy. Some refer to antidepressant drugs as “happy” pills. And that’s a definite misnomer. While the medications can help ameliorate the distressing symptoms of depression, they aren’t going to give you a high or make you feel “happy.”
“These are pills that have beneficial effects—but also some side effects,” he says.
“They can do quite a bit for someone going through a depressive episode. But while they can help improve one’s mood, they aren’t making anyone feel artificially happy.”