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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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A warning: for people satisfied with their standard depression treatments, debunking myths about them may be troubling. However, for critically-thinking depression sufferers who have not been helped by antidepressants, psychotherapy, or other standard treatments, discovering truths about these treatments can provide ideas about what may actually work for them. 

Critical thinkers have difficulty placing faith in any depression treatment because science tells them that these treatments often work no better than placebos or nothing at all, and if one lacks faith in a depression treatment, it is not likely to be effective. In fact, it is belief and faith—or what scientists call “expectations” and the “placebo effect”—that is mostly responsible for any depression treatment working. Critical-thinkers can find a way out of depression when their critical thinking about depression treatments is validated and respected, and they are challenged to think more critically about their critical thinking. 

 

Myth 1: Antidepressants Are More Effective than Placebos 

Many depressed people report that antidepressants have been effective for them, but do antidepressants work any better than a sugar pill? Researcher Irving Kirsch (professor of psychology at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom as well as professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and author of The Emperor’s New Drugs ) has been trying to answer that question for a significant part of his career.

In 2002, Kirsch and his team at the University of Connecticut examined 47 depression treatment studies that had been sponsored by drug companies on the antidepressants Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, Celexa, and Serzone. Many of these studies had not been published, but all had been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so Kirsch used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to all the data. He discovered that in the majority of the trials, antidepressants failed to outperform sugar pill placebos. 

 “All antidepressants,” Kirsch reported in 2010, “including the well-known SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors], had no clinically significant benefit over a placebo.” While in aggregate, antidepressants slightly edge out placebos, the difference is so unremarkable that Kirsch and others describe it as “clinically negligible.” 

Why are so many doctors unaware of the lack of superiority of antidepressants as compared to placebos? The answer became clear in 2008 when researcher and physician Erick Turner (currently at the Department of Psychiatry and Center for Ethics in Health Care, Oregon Health and Science University) discovered that antidepressant studies with favorable outcomes were far more likely to be published than those with unfavorable outcomes. Analyzing published and unpublished antidepressant studies registered with the FDA between 1987-2004, Turner found that 37 of 38 studies having positive results were published; however, Turner reported, “Studies viewed by the FDA as having negative or questionable results were, with 3 exceptions, either not published (22 studies) or published in a way that, in our opinion, [falsely] conveyed a positive outcome (11 studies).”

Myth 2: If the First Antidepressant Fails, Another Antidepressant Will Likely Succeed

In The Noonday Demon , the popular 2001 book about depression, writer and depression sufferer Andrew Solomon repeated the then urban legend that “more than 80 percent of depressed patients are responsive to medication.” Solomon accurately cites a journal article that states this statistic; however, following the “reference trail,” I discovered that the journal article that Solomon cited refers to a second article for evidence of this statistic, but this second journal article mentions nothing about 80 percent of depressed patients responding to some medication.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was aware that there was no research to back up the assertion that 80 percent of depressed patients improve if they keep trying different medications, so NIMH funded “Sequential Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression” (STAR*D), the largest ever study of sequential depression treatments. STAR*D results were published in 2006. 

 
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