In addition to facilitating a nation-wide focus on breast cancer awareness, October is National Antidepressant Death Awareness Month. The national recognition was created to highlight the prevalence of injury and death associated with the use of antidepressants. As widespread as the use of pharmaceuticals to combat depression is, the campaign to raise awareness and prevent premature mortality is a timely one.
The use of antidepressants is nearly ubiquitous across the country. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that they rank among the three most common therapeutic drug classes in the United States, and a study conducted by The New York Times indicated that nigh on 25 million Americans have taken prescription drugs for depression for a minimum of two years.
Major depressive disorder, also referred to as clinical depression, is a common condition and the most common reason antidepressants are prescribed. Depression alters thought processes and behavioral patterns. Clinical depression covers a variety of disorders that produce this effect on an individual, including bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and psychotic depression.
Antidepressants are not only prescribed to treat depression. Anxiety is another common impetus. Clinical anxiety often presents itself as intrusive fearful thoughts or a persistent inexplicable sense of dread. These excessive feelings of worry can be debilitating.
What Do Antidepressants Do?
There is a wide variety of antidepressants available, though they work toward the same goal: minimizing the ill effects of mental illness. Because these usually affect and are affected by brain chemistry, most drugs of this kind strive to normalize the chemistry of the brain. This usually involves boosting neurotransmitter levels or clearing up their progress through the brain. Neurotransmitters act as chemical messengers in the brain.
Types of Antidepressants
There are five major kinds of antidepressants:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs inhibit the reabsorption of serotonin into neurons, increasing the neurotransmitter’s availability in the brain. more serotonin available to improve transmission of messages between neurons.
- Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): SNRIs keep both serotonin and norepinephrine from being reabsorbed.
- Tricyclic (TCAs): TCAs also block the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine, while affecting other chemical messengers.
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): Among the earliest treatments for depression, MAOIs prevent monoamine oxidase (an enzyme) from removing norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine from the brain.
- Noradrenaline and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs): NASSAs block some serotonin receptors and increase the amount of serotonin and noradrenaline in the synaptic cleft (the space through which neurotransmitters send their messages between neurons at the nerve synapses).
Why Are Antidepressants Stigmatized?
The prevalent use of antidepressants as a mitigant for clinical depression makes them a visible and easy target for media coverage and for personal experience. While such prescription drugs can dampen the effects of several mental health issues, they are not a magic pill that makes everything better. They may also take weeks to take full effect. Those expecting more immediate and dramatic results are often left disappointed and sometimes vitriolic in their condemnation.
Because the drugs are used to treat mental health issues, there is an unfortunate association between antidepressant use and increased emotional and mental health challenges. Negative side effects, including emotional dulling and suicidal thoughts, are a risk.
Like any prescription drug, the temptation to take more than the prescribed dosage to see increased or quicker results is present. It may be more compelling since the demographic in question is being treated for imbalanced brain chemistry. Unfortunately, the incidence of substance abuse associated with depression patients is nearly one-third. This well-documented comorbidity results in increased social and personal impairment, higher suicide risk, and other psychiatric conditions.
Help Is Available
While antidepressants can be a helpful resource for those suffering from mental health challenges and are generally safe when used as prescribed, they must be used according to proper guidance from medical professionals if the very real dangers of the drugs are to be avoided. A prescription should always be accompanied by regular medical and/or psychiatric care.
Antidepressants are most effective when used in conjunction with other healthy coping strategies, like therapy. A nation-wide movement to normalize therapy and other mental health resources is a step in the right direction for preventing prescription drug-related mortality. Keeping open communication with friends and family is also a beneficial strategy.
In the midst of depression and other mental health challenges, many people feel that they are alone. If you struggle with a diagnosis or with moderating your antidepressant use, please know that you are not alone. Seek medical help before episodes become unmanageable, and take advantage of the many resources that are available.