My antidepressant journey started in 2022, many years after my depression journey had begun.
About a decade prior, I’d visited my local medical practice for help with my struggling mental health — and an as-yet undiagnosed anxiety disorder — and was shooed out halfway through an assessment form. I was told that my stress was “normal” and they didn’t have time for what I was trying to communicate.
After years of just keeping my head above water, with the help of both state-funded and private psychotherapy, some pandemic-induced burnout pushed me under the surface.
I dragged myself back to the doctor’s office to seek the help I sorely needed. This time, I left with a prescription for a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a type of drug that increases the amount of serotonin in the brain by preventing it from being easily reabsorbed by surrounding cells.
How does serotonin impact mental well-being?
Serotonin is a chemical that’s produced by the body. It plays a role in regulating your mood and impacts how:
- anxiety is regulated
- happiness is experienced
- wounds are healed
- nausea is stimulated
SSRIs are thought to relieve certain symptoms of mood disorders by boosting the amount of serotonin in the brain.
I was taken aback by how helpful medication was. While it took a few weeks for my body to adjust, I soon noticed an improvement.
I finally felt as though there was a way out of the isolation and heaviness.
But I was even more shocked by how many people shared their own similar experiences — friends, relatives, and co-workers who had been on the same medication, or continued to be, quietly managing their conditions in relatively hushed tones.
I realized that a considerable percentage of people around me had taken some form of antidepressant at some point or another. However, no one was talking about it.
The word ‘antidepressant’ was initially coined in 1952 after a discovery of the mood-boosting effects of a tuberculosis drug. Since then, there’s been a steady development of prescription antidepressants with a surge of interest in new antidepressants in the 1970s. The first major SSRI, fluoxetine (Prozac), was introduced in 1987.
The United States has the highest antidepressant usage for any country in the world. In fact, the
The availability of medication compared to other forms of treatment is key to its silent popularity.
As a result, this points to how medication that’s easily available fills the gap left by incomplete mental health care.
Professor Allan Young, director at the Centre for Affective Disorders at King’s College London, notes that the scarcity of other treatments — like therapy, counseling, and support groups — can actually increase the stigma surrounding medication.
“Evidence shows that the two [psychotherapy and medication] are not contradictory,” he says. “People often do better with both together.”
Just like a physical injury can make it difficult to get to the hospital, depression can quickly become its own obstacle. Not only is it an invisible illness, but it also has the tendency to dampen a person’s spirit and weigh them down.
As Young puts it, “the disorder imposes barriers to access by its inherent nature.”
According to the American Psychological Association, adults cited the following reasons for not receiving mental health care:
- thinking they could handle the condition or symptoms without the help of a professional
- not knowing where to find help
- not having time
Additionally, in the case of minority groups like LGBTQ+ youth, The Trevor Project’s Director of Research Science, Dr. Myeshia Price, says that “reasons why young people who wanted mental health care were unable to get it were: fear of discussing mental health concerns, concerns with obtaining parent [or] caregiver permission, and fear of not being taken seriously.”
She adds that “Admitting you need help is a brave thing to do, but it can be even scarier when you don’t know where to start.”
The recurring theme from the experts I spoke to is the need for a variety of treatments to be easily available — to ensure each person can access what they need without difficulty, undue cost, or judgment.
There’s also an acknowledgment that things are changing, though, since conversations about mental health are being had.
A lot has improved over the years. It makes me think back to my first attempt at receiving mental health support. I see that even a single decade can cause huge shifts in the way we think about depression, the attitude of medical practices, and what kind of support is available to everyday people.
Out of the people I spoke to for this piece, I think this was best put by Wendy Robison, head of services at Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity in the United Kingdom.
“The stigma is driven by a fear that being open about mental health issues leads to being seen as weak, not good enough, somewhat lacking,” they say.
“People often also fear that being seen this way could cost them their job or friends or family…” says Robison, “but we should be optimistic that a tipping point will come, when mental health challenges are accepted as a totally normal part of being a human in today’s complex world.”
Check out some of Healthline’s mental health resources below if you or someone you know needs support.
- The best online therapy services
- The top online psychiatry services
- How to find a therapist in your budget
If you’re in a mental health crisis, you can:
- call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988
- message the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, message them on WhatsApp, or chat online
- call 911 or your local emergency number, if you feel safe to do so
Henry St Leger is a technology and science reporter based in the UK. You’ll find them writing variously for NBC News, The Times, TechRadar, and Space.com, alongside media appearances for BBC World News and Channel News Asia.