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Are Antidepressants a Scam? 5 Myths About How to Treat Depression

Many treatments for depression are no more effective than placebos.

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First, the good news about CBT. The only non-drug treatment examined in STAR*D was a form of cognitive therapy (which was not fully detailed by STAR*D authors and only administered in Step Two). Among those who failed Celexa in the first step, three groups in Step Two switched from Celexa to one of three antidepressants, and their remission rates ranged from 25 to 26.6 percent; but one group in Step Two switched from Celexa to cognitive therapy, and its remission rate was 41.9 percent. STAR*D researchers did not assess whether any differences in treatment effectiveness were statistically significant. 

Another group in Step Two maintained Celexa and added cognitive therapy, and this “Celexa plus cognitive therapy” group’s remission rate was 29.4 percent, not as high as the group that received cognitive therapy without medication. This begs the question: Is it also a myth that “antidepressants plus psychotherapy” works better than either treatment alone? Research psychologist David Antonuccio at the University of Nevada School of Medicine reports, “Combined psychotherapy and drug treatment do not appear to be superior to therapy or drug treatment alone.” 

What psychotherapy is best for depression? While Americans hear most about CBT, it turns out that CBT or some form of cognitive therapy is no more effective for depression than any of several other types of psychotherapy. In 2008, psychologists Pim Cuijpers and Annemicke van Straten at the University of Amsterdam reported on a meta-analysis of 53 studies, each of which compared two or more different types of psychotherapy for depression. Included were varieties of “cognitive-behavior therapy,” “psychodynamic therapy,” “behavioral activation therapy,” “social skills training,” “problem-solving therapy,” “interpersonal therapy,” and “nondirective supportive therapy.” The major finding? “No large differences in efficacy between major psychotherapies for mild to moderate depression.” 

So, if psychotherapy technique is not all that important, what is? Psychologist Bruce Wampold at the University of Wisconsin reviewed the psychotherapy outcome literature, examining hundreds of studies and meta-analyses, for his book The Great Psychotherapy Debate . Wampold unequivocally states that outcome effectiveness does not depend on the specific techniques of psychotherapy but instead depends on so-called “non-specific” factors such as the nature of the alliance between therapist and their client, and clients’ confidence in the therapy and in their therapist. “Simply stated,” Wampold concludes, “the client must believe in the treatment or be led to believe in it.”


Myth 5: No Treatment for Depression Works 

In April 2002, an NIMH-funded study on the antidepressant Zolof, the herb St. John’s wort, and a placebo had some curious results. The findings were that 32 percent of placebo-treated patients experienced remission, better than the 25 percent remission for the Zoloft-treated patients or the 24 percent remission for the St. John’s wort-treated patients. Most scientists would say that this study shows that neither Zoloft nor St. John’s wort worked, but those subjects who had positive outcomes with these two treatments would disagree. So, does this study show that antidepressants and St. John’s wort are not helpful, or does it show that “expectations,” belief,” and “faith” are the likely factors that make all treatments work?

When assessing whether a specific treatment is effective, scientists are trained to rule out the effect of expectations. Researchers evaluate a depression treatment as effective if, in a controlled study, the treatment outcome is significantly better than a placebo. However, the reality of depression treatments is that expectations, faith, belief, and the placebo effect are far and away the most important reasons why anything works. 

In 2004, Heather Krell, M.D. and her group at the University of California in Los Angeles examined the influence of patient expectations on the effectiveness of an experimental antidepressant. They found that among those depressed patients expecting that the medication would be very effective, 90 percent had a positive response; while among those expecting the medication would be somewhat effective, only 33 percent had a positive response. No depressed people were included in this study who expected the experimental drug to be ineffective, but such nonbelievers, in my experience, rarely report a positive response with antidepressants. All treatments can work, but rarely do so if one doesn’t believe in them. 

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