Do Anti-Depressants Work? It Very Well Might Be the Placebo That Does the Trick
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The following is an excerpt from The Emperor's New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch, Ph.D. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.
Like most people, I used to think that antidepressants worked. As a clinical psychologist, I referred depressed psychotherapy clients to psychiatric colleagues for the prescription of medication, believing that it might help. Sometimes the antidepressant seemed to work; sometimes it did not. When it did work, I assumed it was the active ingredient in the antidepressant that was helping my clients cope with their psychological condition.
According to drug companies, more than 80 percent of depressed patients can be treated successfully by antidepressants. Claims like this made these medications one of the most widely prescribed class of prescription drugs in the world, with global sales that make it a $19-billion-a-year industry. Newspaper and magazine articles heralded antidepressants as miracle drugs that had changed the lives of millions of people. Depression, we were told, is an illness – a disease of the brain that can be cured by medication. I was not so sure that depression was really an illness, but I did believe that the drugs worked and that they could be a helpful adjunct to psychotherapy for very severely depressed clients. That is why I referred these clients to psychiatrists who could prescribe antidepressants that the clients could take while continuing in psychotherapy to work on the psychological issues that had made them depressed.
But was it really the drug they were taking that made my clients feel better? Perhaps I should have suspected that the improvement they reported might not have been a drug effect. People obtain considerable benefits from many medications, but they also can experience symptom improvement just by knowing they are being treated. This is called the placebo effect. As a researcher at the University of Connecticut, I had been studying placebo effects for many years. I was well aware of the power of belief to alleviate depression, and I understood that this was an important part of any treatment, be it psychological or pharmacological. But I also believed that antidepressant drugs added something substantial over and beyond the placebo effect.
As I wrote in my first book, "comparisons of anti-depressive medication with placebo pills indicate that the former has a greater effect . . . the existing data suggest a pharmacologically specific effect of imipramine on depression." As a researcher, I trusted the data as it had been presented in the published literature. I believed that antidepressants like imipramine were highly effective drugs, and I referred to this as "the established superiority of imipramine over placebo treatment."
When I began my research, I was not particularly interested in investigating the effects of antidepressants. But I was definitely interested in investigating placebo effects wherever I could find them, and it seemed to me that depression was a perfect place to look. Why did I expect to find a large placebo effect in the treatment of depression? If you ask depressed people to tell you what the most depressing thing in their lives is, many answer that it is their depression. Clinical depression is a debilitating condition.
People with severe depression feel unbearably sad and anxious, at times to the point of considering suicide as a way to relieve the burden. They may be racked with feelings of worthlessness and guilt. Many suffer from insomnia, whereas others sleep too much and find it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Some have difficulty concentrating and have lost interest in all of the activities that previously brought pleasure and meaning into their lives. Worst of all, they feel hopeless about ever recovering from this terrible state, and this sense of hopelessness may lead them to feel that life is not worth living.