Antidepressants are commonly prescribed medications proven time and time again to be safe and effective for the treatment of depression and anxiety. They are approved by the FDA because scientific research has shown these helpful benefits. You may have heard of types of antidepressants such as “SSRIs” (i.e. Zoloft and Prozac) and “SNRIs” (i.e. Cymbalta and Effexor), which can be used to treat anxiety in addition to depression. In my experience as a psychiatrist, these medications can be absolutely life-changing by reducing suffering for people with these debilitating conditions.
With that said, I often have to dispel a number of myths and misconceptions for my patients about what taking medications like these for mental health conditions actually means. The following are some of the biggest misconceptions I hear along with a bit insight into what the truth actually is.
Misconception #1: Medication is only for severe issues.
While the idea of “psychiatric medication” may bring to mind severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, most people who benefit from psychiatric medication instead take it to help with problems of anxiety and depression. In fact, if you ask your friends and family, chances are good that one of them may have benefitted from these. (1 in 5 Americans experience clinical depression or anxiety.)
Misconception #2: Antidepressants will change your personality.
No medication exists that can change a person’s underlying personality. I explain to patients that they will still “be themselves” after starting an SSRI, just hopefully a version of themselves that is suffering less with problematic anxiety and depression. In fact, many people report “feeling like myself again” after being treated with an appropriate medication.
Misconception #3: Antidepressants will cause severe side effects.
Medication does have the potential for side effects; thankfully, antidepressants aren’t overly problematic for most people. Side effects such as slight headache or stomach discomfort can occur as your body becomes accustomed to the medication, but these often improve over time.
Most modern antidepressants don’t cause weight gain, and some patients experience weight loss by regaining the energy for physical activity. Psychiatrists can also use tools like genetic testing (also called pharmacogenomic testing) to limit potential side effects and work with patients to make adjustments should a side effect occur.
Misconception #4: Taking medication is taking the easy way out.
Our culture may teach us to be “self-reliant” and stigmatizes seeking assistance, even when it can be helpful or even life-saving. But medication and psychotherapy are both tools to treat mental illness. Just as therapists provide one type of care, psychiatrists can also provide another (assessing if medication may be appropriate and helpful).
Our brains are wonderfully complex organs. Like other systems of the body, they are susceptible to suboptimal functioning. One wouldn’t judge a person with diabetes for taking insulin; similarly there shouldn’t be judgment for taking an antidepressant to treat another type of illness.
Misconception #5: Medication is a lifelong commitment.
Treatment with medication for depression and anxiety is often temporary rather than lifelong. If you have a dramatic improvement in depression or anxiety on an SSRI, you could elect to continue it for about six months to decrease the chance of those symptoms returning.
After symptoms are under control for some time, it is reasonable to consider working with your doctor to lower the dose or stop the medication. Many people do not wish to stop their SSRI because they benefit so much, making continuing with medication a reasonable solution as well.
Medication is a proven, powerful tool that helps people to achieve better mental health, especially for people who feel like they may have otherwise hit a wall in their journey toward better mental health. While medications like antidepressants aren’t for everyone, it’s important to separate fact from fiction to make your own informed decision.
If you’re interested in meeting with a psychiatrist to learning whether this type of treatment for depression and anxiety may be appropriate for you, I’d encourage you to check out Prairie Health and to schedule a free 15-minute consultation with a member of our care team.