What Do Antidepressants Really Do?

I believe that the oldest reference to an antidepressant medicine comes in Homer’s Odyssey, which “could not have been completed much before the end of the eighth century B.C” according to Richmond Lattimore. The reference occurs when Menelaos (brother of Agamemnon),  Telemachos (son of Odysseus), and others are grieving the loss of friends and relatives in the Trojan War. Helen, the wife of Menelaos, is also present. It was her departure to the walled city of Troy with Paris that triggered the assault on that fortress to retrieve her. Having since returned to her husband, she wishes to salve the emotional pain of the men who are gathered at her home. The passage reads as follows in Lattimore’s translation:

“Into the wine of which they were drinking she cast a medicine of heartease, free of gall, to make one forget all sorrows, and whoever had drunk it down once it had been mixed in the wine bowl, for the day that he drank it would have no tear role down his face, not if his mother died and his father died, not if men murdered a brother or a beloved son in his presence, with the bronze, and he with his own eyes saw it.”

That would be a potent brew indeed. But the idea of it prompts me to say a few words about what an antidepressant can and cannot do, for there is much misunderstanding on this point. And, by the way, the first real antidepressants only became available in the 1950s.

An antidepressant does not make you giddy about your life or impervious to emotional pain; it doesn’t make you forget bad things. In other words, it is not what Helen of Troy administered. If an antidepressant is working well, it helps put a floor under you. That is to say, many people with depression feel as though there is nothing holding them up (metaphorically speaking), no bottom to their suffering.

An effective medication creates that bottom, relieving them of the sense that they are without any support underneath them. It reduces their suffering too, makes them less prone to crying, less exhausted, and less subject either to over-eating or having no appetite, and usually able to sleep better. In other words, the medicine helps you tolerate life and helps normalize that life.

Some people, including quite a number who shy away from psychiatric medications or medication or any kind, actually are attempting to “doctor” themselves with drugs or alcohol.

There is danger here, naturally.

You probably know some of the dangers, but one I want to mention in particular is the depressant-effect of alcohol. It might make you feel better in the short-run, but in the long-run it is likely to fuel your depression, not to mention create a dependency.

As the old Chinese expression goes, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.”

I suspect that you know someone who believes that psychotropic medication (and perhaps psychotherapy too) is a crutch. There is no denying that being treated for emotional problems can produce negative judgments and a stigma. Moreover, historically speaking, insurance companies have paid less well for therapy and psychotropic medication than for “physical” illnesses. That has just changed in 2010, but the stigma won’t be legislatively erased by the US congress, as was achieved by “parity” legislation that now requires equal insurance coverage of both physical and “mental or nervous” conditions.

Yet some categories of depression are certainly just as “physical” as an imperfect gall bladder is, for instance. Specifically, Bipolar Disorder, also called Manic-Depressive Disorder, is one such biologically-based psychiatric category where medical intervention is often enormously helpful, if not essential.

Would you want your severely diabetic loved-one to avoid the “crutch” of necessary medication? If your answer is “no,” then you shouldn’t be put-off by treating a biologically-based depression with a proper medication to stabilize his mood.

Nonetheless, it is true that many depressed individuals do not have any biological flaw or chemical imbalance, but rather are reacting emotionally to difficult life circumstances such as repeated losses (e.g. divorce, job loss), unfinished grief, or abuse of one kind or another. Very often psychotherapy is able  to successfully treat these people without the benefit of medication. Indeed, sometimes patients are too quick to obtain antidepressant prescriptions which take the edge off their feelings enough to reduce their motivation to address difficult life circumstances, including repetitive patterns of behavior that lead to unhappiness.  In that event, they will risk having to stay on antidepressants lest they fall back into depression.

For those patients, on the other hand, who successfully address their issues in psychotherapy, antidepressants may never be needed or, if they are used, might be required only temporarily.

If you are seeing a therapist for depression, talk with him about medicine for your condition, especially if you feel that you need immediate relief or are having suicidal thoughts. Beware equally of therapists who never want their patients to go on medication, as well as those who always do.

I should mention that while many depressed people obtain medication from their family or primary-care physician or general practitioner (GP), this isn’t always the best source of psychotropic mood-altering substances. While some GPs are both comfortable with and experienced in prescribing such medication, some are hesitant or unsure. The latter group may be less adept at identifying the precise antidepressant which is best for you given your particular symptoms; moreover, their hesitation can cause them to give you too low a dose to obtain a therapeutic benefit.

A good psychiatrist, by contrast, is absolutely up-to-date on everything about the medications available to treat you, adept at identifying which of the available antidepressants is the best fit for your particular situation, and knows how to get you to a therapeutic level of the medicine as quickly as possible. Since those in pain so often feel as if there will be no end to their suffering, and since antidepressants often take a several weeks to produce relief, getting the medicine right as quickly as possible is very important.

If you do choose to obtain medication, be sure to educate yourself about your condition and the possible side-effects of the medication being suggested. Not all physicians are good about describing those side-effects before-hand, even including the sexual side-effects produced by some antidepressants. Be your own advocate. Don’t be passive in treatment. It is your body, it is your life.

Last I heard, you only get one of each.

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