Once diagnosed, a person with depression can be treated with a number of methods. The most common treatment methods are medication and psychotherapy.
Antidepressants work to normalize naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, notably serotonin and norepinephrine. Other antidepressants work on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Scientists studying depression have found that these particular chemicals are involved in regulating mood, but they are unsure of the exact ways in which they work.
The newest and most popular types of antidepressant medications are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and include:
Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are similar to SSRIs and include:
SSRIs and SNRIs tend to have fewer side effects and are more popular than the older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclics - named for their chemical structure - and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). However, medications affect everyone differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to medication. Therefore, for some people, tricyclics or MAOIs may be the best choice.
People taking MAOIs must adhere to significant food and medicinal restrictions to avoid potentially serious interactions. They must avoid certain foods that contain high levels of the chemical tyramine, which is found in many cheeses, wines and pickles, and some medications including decongestants. Most MAOIs interact with tyramine in such a way that may cause a sharp increase in blood pressure, which may lead to a stroke. A doctor should give a person taking an MAOI a complete list of prohibited foods, medicines and substances.
For all classes of antidepressants, people must take regular doses for at least three to four weeks, sometimes longer, before they are likely to experience a full effect. They should continue taking the medication for an amount of time specified by their doctor, even if they are feeling better, to prevent a relapse of the depression. The decision to stop taking medication should be made by the person and her doctor together, and should be done only under the doctor's supervision. Some medications need to be gradually stopped to give the body time to adjust. Although they are not habit-forming or addictive, abruptly ending an antidepressant can cause withdrawal symptoms or lead to a relapse. Some individuals, such as those with chronic or recurrent depression, may need to stay on the medication indefinitely.
In addition, if one medication does not work, people should be open to trying another. Research funded by NIMH has shown that those who did not get well after taking a first medication often fared better after they switched to a different medication or added another medication to their existing one.
Sometimes other medications, such as stimulants or antianxiety medications, are used in conjunction with an antidepressant, especially if the person has a coexisting illness. However, neither antianxiety medications nor stimulants are effective against depression when taken alone, and both should be taken only under a doctor's close supervision.
Is it safe to take antidepressant medication during pregnancy?
At one time, doctors assumed that pregnancy was accompanied by a natural feeling of well being, and that depression during pregnancy was rare, or never occurred at all. However, recent studies have shown that women can have depression while pregnant, especially if they have a prior history of the illness. In fact, a majority of women with a history of depression will likely relapse during pregnancy if they stop taking their antidepressant medication either prior to conception or early in the pregnancy, putting both mother and baby at risk.
However, antidepressant medications do pass across the placental barrier, potentially exposing the developing fetus to the medication. Some research suggests the use of SSRIs during pregnancy is associated with miscarriage and/or birth defects, but other studies do not support this. Some studies have indicated that fetuses exposed to SSRIs during the third trimester may be born with "withdrawal" symptoms such as breathing problems, jitteriness, irritability, difficulty feeding, or hypoglycemia. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning against the use of SSRIs in the late third trimester, suggesting that clinicians gradually taper expectant mothers off SSRIs in the third trimester to avoid any ill effects on the baby.
Although some studies suggest that exposure to SSRIs in pregnancy may have adverse effects on the infant, generally they are mild and short-lived, and no deaths have been reported. On the flip side, women who stop taking their antidepressant medication during pregnancy increase their risk for developing depression again and may put both themselves and their infant at risk.
In light of these mixed results, women and their doctors need to consider the potential risks and benefits to both mother and fetus of taking an antidepressant during pregnancy, and make decisions based on individual needs and circumstances. In some cases, a woman and her doctor may decide to taper her antidepressant dose during the last month of pregnancy to minimize the newborn's withdrawal symptoms, and after delivery, return to a full dose during the vulnerable postpartum period.
Is it safe to take antidepressant medication while breastfeeding?
Antidepressants are excreted in breast milk, usually in very small amounts. The amount an infant receives is usually so small that it does not register in blood tests. Few problems are seen among infants nursing from mothers who are taking antidepressants. However, as with antidepressant use during pregnancy, both the risks and benefits to the mother and infant should be taken into account when deciding whether to take an antidepressant while breastfeeding.
What are the side effects of antidepressants?
Antidepressants may cause mild and often temporary side effects in some people, but usually they are not long-term. However, any unusual reactions or side effects that interfere with normal functioning or are persistent or troublesome should be reported to a doctor immediately.
The most common side effects associated with SSRIs and SNRIs include:
Tricyclic antidepressants also can cause side effects including:
FDA warning on antidepressants
Despite the relative safety and popularity of SSRIs and other antidepressants, some studies have suggested that they may have unintentional effects on some people, especially adolescents and young adults. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a thorough review of published and unpublished controlled clinical trials of antidepressants that involved nearly 4,400 children and adolescents. The review revealed that 4 percent of those taking antidepressants thought about or attempted suicide (although no suicides occurred), compared to 2 percent of those receiving placebos.
This information prompted the FDA, in 2005, to adopt a "black box" warning label on all antidepressant medications to alert the public about the potential increased risk of suicidal thinking or attempts in children and adolescents taking antidepressants. In 2007, the FDA proposed that makers of all antidepressant medications extend the warning to include young adults up through age 24. A "black box" warning is the most serious type of warning on prescription drug labeling.
The warning emphasizes that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be closely monitored, especially during the initial weeks of treatment. Possible side effects to look for are worsening depression, suicidal thinking or behavior, or any unusual changes in behavior such as sleeplessness, agitation, or withdrawal from normal social situations. The warning adds that families and caregivers should also be told of the need for close monitoring and report any changes to the physician. The latest information is available from the FDA.
Results of a comprehensive review of pediatric trials conducted between 1988 and 2006 suggested that the benefits of antidepressant medications likely outweigh their risks to children and adolescents with major depression and anxiety disorders. The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Also, the FDA issued a warning that combining an SSRI or SNRI antidepressant with one of the commonly-used "triptan" medications for migraine headache could cause a life-threatening "serotonin syndrome," marked by agitation, hallucinations, elevated body temperature, and rapid changes in blood pressure. Although most dramatic in the case of the MAOIs, newer antidepressants may also be associated with potentially dangerous interactions with other medications.
What about St. John’s wort?
The extract from the herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a bushy, wild-growing plant with yellow flowers, has been used for centuries in many folk and herbal remedies. Today in Europe, it is used extensively to treat mild to moderate depression. In the United States, it is a top-selling botanical product.
To address increasing American interest in St. John’s wort, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a clinical trial to determine the effectiveness of the herb in treating adults suffering from major depression. Involving 340 patients diagnosed with major depression, the eight-week trial randomly assigned one-third of them to a uniform dose of St. John’s wort, one-third to a commonly prescribed SSRI, and one-third to a placebo. The trial found that St. John’s wort was no more effective than the placebo in treating major depression. Another study is underway to look at the effectiveness of St. John’s wort for treating mild or minor depression.
Other research has shown that St. John’s wort can interact unfavorably with other drugs, including drugs used to control HIV infection. On February 10, 2000, the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory letter stating that the herb appears to interfere with certain drugs used to treat heart disease, depression, seizures, certain cancers, and organ transplant rejection. The herb also may interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives. Because of these and other potential interactions, people should always consult their doctors before taking any herbal supplement.
Several types of psychotherapy—or "talk therapy"— can help people with depression.
Some regimens are short-term (10 to 20 weeks) and other regimens are longer-term, depending on the needs of the individual. Two main types of psychotherapies-cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT)-have been shown to be effective in treating depression. By teaching new ways of thinking and behaving, CBT helps people change negative styles of thinking and behaving that may contribute to their depression. IPT helps people understand and work through troubled personal relationships that may cause their depression or make it worse.
For mild to moderate depression, psychotherapy may be the best treatment option. However, for major depression or for certain people, psychotherapy may not be enough. Studies have indicated that for adolescents, a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the most effective approach to treating major depression and reducing the likelihood for recurrence. Similarly, a study examining depression treatment among older adults found that patients who responded to initial treatment of medication and IPT were less likely to have recurring depression if they continued their combination treatment for at least two years.
For cases in which medication and/or psychotherapy does not help alleviate a person's treatment-resistant depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be useful. ECT, formerly known as "shock therapy," used to have a negative reputation. But in recent years, it has greatly improved and can provide relief for people with severe depression who have not been able to feel better with other treatments.
Before ECT is administered, a patient takes a muscle relaxant and is put under brief anesthesia. She does not consciously feel the electrical impulse that is administered. A person typically will undergo ECT several times a week, and often will need to take an antidepressant or mood stabilizing medication to supplement the ECT treatments and prevent relapse. Although some people will need only a few courses of ECT, others may need maintenance ECT, usually once a week at first, then gradually decreasing to monthly treatments for up to one year.
ECT may cause some short-term side effects, including confusion, disorientation and memory loss. But these side effects typically clear shortly after treatment. Research has indicated that after one year of ECT treatments, patients showed no adverse cognitive effects. A person should weigh the potential risks and benefits of ECT and discuss them with her doctor before deciding to undergo ECT treatment.