By Peter Morrison
February 10, 2021
The journey of antidepressants is one that more than 43 million American adults are navigating. Unlike a broken bone, treating mental illness isn’t so straightforward; it’s arduous, confusing and filled with seemingly endless trial and error. But just like Destiny’s Child does in their hit song, “Bills, Bills, Bills,” recognizing what will work best takes time.
Describing complicated thoughts and emotions in just a few words can be difficult. But since their introduction in the 1950s, antidepressants have become more versatile, targeting a multitude of issues. They function by balancing the uptake of various chemicals in the brain, alleviating symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. While fully explaining the science behind them would take an entire textbook, a basic understanding demystifies these important medications.
Most commonly prescribed today are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medications include familiar names like Lexapro and Zoloft. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, are another popular category of antidepressants. Unfortunately, doctors recommend taking these medications for weeks, sometimes months, before deciding if they’re performing as they should.
Initially, a major challenge in getting antidepressants is finding a doctor. Being fortunate enough to have health insurance, however, doesn’t guarantee accessibility to coverage for certain practices and medications. Companies like K Health have emerged as a solution to offer affordable treatments for a variety of diagnoses, helping to break down barriers for those who face limitations in the healthcare system.
The next step is obtaining a diagnosis. Common questions used to reach a diagnosis inquire about trends in substance use, how enjoyable pastimes are now versus the past and if there are any occurring thoughts of self harm. While these questions can be easily answered, they offer only a partial understanding of the issue. Based on these responses, a professional diagnosis evolves into getting a prescription, but don’t expect the first script to be the last.
“At first we started out real cool, taking me places I ain’t never been.”
In a study conducted by the German-based Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 100 people with depressive symptoms were given either an antidepressant or a placebo. Between 40 and 60 of the participants saw significant improvements in their symptoms when taking the actual antidepressant. In comparison, only around a third of people who were taking the placebo saw improvements, showing antidepressants to be close to 20% more effective.
For many, their first good experience with antidepressants is eye-opening. Dread, exhaustion or hopelessness become manageable little by little. A forgotten interest returns to old hobbies, personal relationships and even ordinary meals. A sense of normalcy feels like it’s within reach. Experiencing the positive external effects of taking an antidepressant only builds upon the work being done internally.
But, like any drug, the negative side effects work at the same pace as the positive ones. Symptoms of nausea, insomnia and sexual dysfunction are the most common drawbacks associated with popular antidepressants. These side effects can be tough to deal with and can even overshadow progress made by taking an antidepressant.
“But now, you’re getting comfortable. Ain’t doing those things you did no more.”
Different prescriptions have a variety of strengths and compositions. It’s important to understand that everyone’s experience with them is unique. The same side effects have potential to be more or less severe, or even nonexistent, depending on the person. Constant physical illness isn’t something to look forward to; speaking up about personal interaction with a medication is necessary when trying to find the right fit.
Even as the negative effects can fade away after time, so can the positive ones. What worked in the beginning may not be the same as what’s needed now. The feeling of slowed progress can even worsen symptoms set out to be corrected by the medication in the first place. But knowing when to change antidepressants isn’t a step backwards, just a step in a new direction.
The intention of any antidepressant is to feel, well, anti-depressed. It’s in the name after all. But defining what it means to feel better is totally abstract. Should the world be full of sunshine and rainbows, or should getting out of bed be a little easier? The answer isn’t clear, but patience alongside self-awareness are important in making the long journey a smooth one.
Peter Morrison is a senior majoring in interdisciplinary humanities with concentrations in hospitality business, Spanish, and professional writing. In his spare time he enjoys learning about and tending to his plants.