Mental health has become a hot button issue over the past couple of years. Once regarded as taboo, sentiments around the subject have shifted, leading to more open, honest discussions.
This is a good thing. More people are seeking help for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues than ever before. Up to 90% of suicides occur from untreated mental illness and when people seek treatment, it is an important first step. [i]
In many cases, medication is prescribed and can be helpful, especially for certain illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, treating depression with medication is more complicated.
Reality Check: We Don’t Know How Antidepressants Work
Antidepressants have been around for decades and have generally been regarded as the gold standard for treating depression and anxiety. As a result, 1 in 6 Americans are on antidepressants today.[ii]
If you do a quick Google search for “How do antidepressants work?”, you will find many claims that these medications increase neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain, described as mood boosters. For decades, it was believed that people with depression have lower levels of neurotransmitters than the general population. If antidepressants increase neurotransmitters, then it would make sense that a person with depression would receive a boost in their mood along with rising levels of neurotransmitters.
However, the idea that depression is caused by a deficiency in neurotransmitters has been challenged by researchers in recent years. Educational material from Harvard Medical School states, “Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, and stressful life events. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.”[iii]
And it is not just the cause of depression that is being studied more closely, it is the assumption about how antidepressants work. Dr. Chris Palmer, a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, recently went on the popular podcast Armchair Experts to debunk claims about antidepressant medication. Dr. Palmer discusses how, for those people benefiting from antidepressants, the medication may work differently than simply correcting a chemical imbalance. [iv]