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Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Antidepressants



Depression can feel unbearable. For people who suffer from the disease, antidepressants can be a life-changing treatment. Depression impacts millions of Americans every year and it’s frequently covered in the media, but many sufferers may not understand all of the options they have for relief and treatment. Antidepressant medication can be an important part of depression therapy and help people overcome very real problems they may not be able to take on alone.

“Antidepressants help by balancing chemicals in the brain. This can give the person the boost they need to reduce their symptoms, which makes it possible for them to work toward feeling better overall,” says Kevin P. Caputo, M.D., Chair, Psychiatry at Crozer Health. “Like other drug treatments, however, antidepressants should be used as prescribed with a complete understanding of the side effects and how to manage them.”

What are the Benefits?

While there are differing views on how well antidepressants work, they are considered a key part of treating depression. Antidepressants are prescribed to relieve symptoms and reduce the chance that they’ll come back. They help with emotional balance and reduce symptoms like restlessness, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

As antidepressants work to help treat your depression, they, in turn, can help you sleep better. Depression can sometimes make it difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep. Unfortunately, not getting enough sleep can then make depression worse.

“Antidepressants can also restore your ability to concentrate and improve your sleep, which can suffer when you have depression,” says Dr. Caputo. “In this way, they help to break the cycle since not eating well and lack of sleep can make depression worse.”

What are the Risks?

All drugs carry certain risks of side effects.

One risk associated with antidepressants is that they can increase suicidal thoughts in children and young adults. This risk is highest in the first two months of taking antidepressants. If your child is prescribed antidepressants, it’s important to monitor them closely.

Antidepressants can also lead to sexual dysfunction and may lower your sex drive, which is common among drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

“SSRIs are designed to raise a person’s serotonin levels in critical parts of the brain and limit the action of dopamine,” says Dr. Caputo. “The same thing that makes you feel better can also decrease your sex drive.”

If you decide to stop your medication, it’s best to consult your doctor first. Some medications do not have a risk of withdrawal symptoms and others do. Those with a withdrawal risk need to be stopped in a tapered and controlled fashion. Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can include fatigue, nausea, muscle spasms, mood swings and dizziness among others. A doctor will be able to tell you which can be stopped on your own and which should be monitored if you choose to stop taking them.

“While the potential risks of antidepressants may seem daunting, your doctor will work with you to find the best option that is right for you. The benefits and improved quality of life antidepressants can deliver greatly outweigh its risks,” says Dr. Caputo. “No one has to fight depression on their own.”

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