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Why Do I Have to Take Medication for My Depression?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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If you’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, you might have been prescribed medication in addition to therapy.

There are a number of different medications that treat depression. The most common class of drugs is called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which include Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro, to name a few popular ones. Oftentimes, many SSRIs come with side-effects. You may get nauseous, dizzy, and restless when you take your pills. Some people get extreme headaches, dry mouth, insomnia, and more. Some even experience extreme weight gain.

In addition to SSRIs, there are also other classes of medications that treat depression. These less common antidepressants include SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors) and Tricyclics (TCAs). These come with their own set of physical symptoms and side-effects.

So why do you actually have to take medication, especially when it causes all these other uncomfortable and unpleasant physical issues? Why can’t you just do talk therapy, or exercise, or any of the other evidence-based treatments for depression?

Best Treatment for Depression Includes Medication

While talk therapy and complementary interventions (like exercise, healthy diet, mindfulness exercises and more) do result in improved mood and reduction of depressive symptoms, research has shown that the best treatment for adolescent depression includes medication. In a study on 439 teens with clinical depression, only about 43% showed improvement on psychotherapy alone. Taking medication by itself resulted in a higher rate—60%—but the best rate of success was when teens had a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants. In that group, the rate of success was a whopping 71%!

On a side note, what kind of talk therapy works for depression?

We’re glad you asked. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has a high rate of success with adolescent depression, as does cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). These therapeutic modalities work on changing your thoughts and actions to treat the underlying roots of the disorder. While CBT is usually 1:1 therapy, with DBT you can choose to participate in group therapy in addition to a 1:1 therapist, where you’ll learn practical skills to cope with your depression. If your depression is really pervasive, severe, and debilitating, you might need an adolescent depression treatment center that is more immersive.  This could be a full-time 24/7 residential treatment center (RTC), or an intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization program. In these treatment programs, you can maintain your medication regiment under the guidance of a psychiatrist and other support staff.

That brings us back to the topic of meds: although there are side-effects to taking antidepressants, and you might feel uncomfortable with the idea of being on meds, the benefits usually outweigh the risks. Antidepressants work: Teens get relief from their symptoms and live with their depression without significant impairment if they seek out, and complete, treatment.

Take Your Medication as Prescribed

On the other hand, not taking medicine if you need to can certainly lead to more problems.  Untreated depression can result in a host of other issues—like substance abuse, for example, which can cause long-term damage to the developing brain. Even worse, untreated chronic depression can lead to suicide.

Keep in mind, however, that you need to be patient with medications for depression. SSRIs don’t work instantaneously. According to an NIH study, 30% of depressed individuals go into complete remission after taking their first course of antidepressants. Others need more time or higher doses for longer periods. Antidepressants can take weeks before they achieve the full effect. Take your medicine exactly as prescribed, even if you don’t see any effects right away.

Don’t skip doses or quit early. Even if you feel better after taking medication and now want to stop, talk to your doctor. Don’t stop on your own. Quitting your antidepressants without a doctor’s supervision and instruction can result in symptoms similar to drug withdrawal effects.

On Antidepressants? You’re Not Alone

Still uncomfortable with the idea of taking medication? You should just know that you’re not alone. Many adolescents and teens take prescription medications in the U.S.—about 10% of adolescents are on chronic medication. That’s 1 out of every ten of your classmates! And believe it or not, 3.4 percent of teens ages 12 to 19 take antidepressants, according to the APA.

So you’re in good company.

Read our other article: I don’t like the way my medication makes me feel; what should I do?

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

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