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Experts say antidepressants combined with mental health therapies can be effective in the short term. HOWL/Stocksy United
  • Researchers say antidepressants don’t necessarily improve quality of life over a long period of time.
  • They add, however, that there are short-term benefits and people should continue to take their medications as directed by healthcare professionals.
  • Experts note there are mental health therapies that are effective whether they are done with medications or without them.

Over time, antidepressants do not necessarily cause significantly better health-related quality of life compared to people who don’t take the drugs, according to a new study.

The authors, however, did say more long-term studies are necessary and people shouldn’t stop taking their antidepressant medications.

The research was published on April 20 in the journal PLOS One by a team led by Omar Almohammed, PharmD, Ph.D., a professor in the department of clinical pharmacy of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia.

The team acknowledged studies have demonstrated the efficacy of antidepressant medications in the treatment of depressive disorder. These medications’ effect on overall well-being and health-related quality of life remains debatable, the authors said.

The researchers used data from the 2005-2015 United States Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a longitudinal study tracking the health services used by Americans, including those for depression.

On average, there were 17 million adults diagnosed with depression each year with two years of follow-up, with 57 percent of those studied receiving antidepressant medications.

The antidepressants showed some improvement in the mental component of the survey. However, the study’s authors say there were no statistically significant associations between antidepressants when compared to the change in the group of people diagnosed with depressive disorder who didn’t take antidepressants.

“In other words, the change in quality of life seen among those on antidepressants over two years was not significantly different from that seen among those not taking the drugs,” the authors wrote.

They also said they weren’t able to separately analyze any subtypes or varying severities of depression and future studies should investigate the use of non-pharmacological depression interventions used in combination with antidepressants.

“These results are interesting, but I would not consider them a revelation,” Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and media advisor for Hope for Depression Research Foundation, told Healthline.

“There is a lot of complexity and nuance to mental health, especially with medication,” Lira de la Rosa said. “Psychiatric medication can be very helpful for a lot of clients who are experiencing depression or other mental health concerns. There are times when people may need to combine both psychotherapy and psychiatric medication in their lives. Antidepressants can be useful as an adjunct to therapy and can also be useful long-term for people who have a history of depression.”

Many experts say antidepressants aren’t necessarily looked at as permanent solutions.

“Per American Psychiatric Association guidelines, antidepressants should be used for at least four or five months after symptoms of depression stop,” Juliette McClendon, Ph.D., the director of medical affairs at Big Health mental health care, told Healthline. “However, due to limited access to human-delivered therapy, medications are often used for longer periods of time to manage depression or other mental health conditions.”

“In my experience, people think of antidepressants as long-term solutions,” Eric Patterson, a licensed professional counselor and certified clinical mental health supervisor in western Pennsylvania, told Healthline. “Though people may be curious about life without taking the medications, they may see stopping as a risk too great worth taking.”

“Professional groups promote different treatment lengths of 6, 12, or 24 months for people using antidepressants,” Patterson added. “In reality, many people have depressive disorders with recurrent mood episodes, which means the symptoms may return after a period of time.”

“This really depends on the individual, genetics, environment, and treatment plan with a psychiatric provider,” Lira de la Rosa said. “Generally, most people may be on antidepressants between 6 to 9 months. However, this is not always the case and there is a lot of variability between individuals.”

Experts say more people were taking antidepressants during the COVID-19 pandemic, making their effectiveness an even bigger concern.

“Recent data shows fewer than 22 percent of patients will access non-drug care through a therapist,” McClendon said. “While therapy is a limited resource, antidepressants and other medications are more accessible options, leaving many patients only pharmacological options to treat mental health conditions, such as depression.

“As a result, there was a significant spike in prescriptions for antidepressants, as well as anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia drugs, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020,” she added. “The challenges of the pandemic – more time at home, increased uncertainty and anxiety, and reduction of physical activity – is causing a significant increase in mental health conditions, which has only exacerbated the mental health crisis.”

For those who believe they are dealing with depression but aren’t sure what help they need, professionals say there’s a wide range of effective answers.

“Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the world,” Lira de la Rosa. “There are many ways that people can deal with depression, but I strongly recommend working with a mental health professional for individual psychotherapy. This can also mean working in tandem with a psychiatrist for a psychiatric evaluation to determine if medication and therapy are recommended.”

“In addition to therapy, it is important to receive support from loved ones and family members,” he added. “Depression can cause people to feel alone, hopeless, and helpless, and additional support can be beneficial.”

“As a professional counselor, I think therapy should always be the first-line treatment for depression,” Patterson said. “Therapy is widely available and side-effect-free. People can also do well by focusing on their physical health needs by getting enough sleep, eating well, and increasing their exercise. Spending time with loved ones and cutting out negative coping skills like alcohol, drugs, and overspending money can help, too.”