Are antidepressants for life?

Have you been on antidepressants for a long time? Have you stopped taking them but had to go back to them due to a relapse? There are many people who fear the effects of continuously taking these drugs. What does science say on the subject? We will explore.

Are antidepressants for life?

Last update: June 15, 2023

Are antidepressants for life? The answer is no. But where does this myth come from? When it comes to mental health and depressive disorders, there are a few nuances that tend to change everything.

Some patients who are prescribed psychotropic drugs continue to take them for two years or more. These drugs work by causing changes in the brain that rid the sufferer of many of the symptoms that reinforce depression. However, by themselves, they do not resolve the conflicts on which the disorder may be based.

In fact, multidisciplinary intervention is important. It needs to include a therapy that restores stability to the patient, aided by antidepressants. To make an analogy, imagine a rocket. A launch vehicle will help him take off (the antidepressants) but his engine also needs to be repaired (the therapy to restore autonomy to the patient).

People who take antidepressants on a long-term basis tend to suffer from additional psychological conditions and life problems.

What does science say?

When an antidepressant is first prescribed, the patient usually takes it for at least 4-6 months. After this time, your doctor will schedule your withdrawal and follow-up plan. At least, this is the ideal situation. But every patient has their own personal circumstances that healthcare professionals need to track and supervise.

The primary mechanism of action of most antidepressants is an increase in the availability of serotonin or norepinephrine. However, a study conducted by University College London (UK) in 2022, states that there is not enough evidence to support the idea that depression is due to a deficiency of these neurotransmitters.

This would suggest that the approach to treating depressive disorders should not be based on psychoactive drugs alone and that more strategies are needed.

1. Every patient has their own needs

The ultimate goal is for patients to eventually stop using antidepressants. To do this, they must meet a number of conditions. But the timing must be chosen well because a relapse could lead to even deeper despair.

This was reported by a large-scale study conducted by the University of North Carolina (USA). only a third of those who use antidepressants recover completely within months. Others improve a little, but need more time to experience their full effects.

It is also common to see patients who have been using different types of antidepressants for several years because they have not yet found one that is right for them.

Doctor with dose of pills in hand to represent if they are lifelong antidepressants
The administration of drugs must always be supervised by specialized professionals.

2. Relapses are frequent

When estimating the duration of pharmacological intervention for depression, certain dangers must be considered. The most important is probably the fallout. Research conducted by the University of Minnesota (USA) states that at least 50% of patients who recover from a first depression experience a relapse. They add that 80% of those who experience two relapses will be at risk of a third.

In too many cases, a withdrawal of consumption is foreseen, only to then be needed again. In order to avoid the more negative effects of a relapse, it is extremely important that the patient be aware of this possibility and be prepared to deal with the situation when the drug is stopped, should it occur.

It is preferable for the patient to anticipate the need for this type of emotional management when they are feeling good rather than when they are starting to decline when everything might seem murky. Talking about it is helpful. It should be noted that the tendency to the relapse often has a genetic basis.

Many people have been using antidepressants for decades. The cause lies in the continuous relapses, often due to genetic factors, more complex personal conditions and the lack of adequate psychological approaches.

3. Taking antidepressants for life

There are multiple variables that indicate that antidepressant treatment may be prolonged. For example, if a patient has suffered from two to three episodes of major depression (the most severe form), doctors may recommend continuing this treatment for a long time. It could last for years. Here are some other contributing factors:

  • Periodic relapses.
  • Misdiagnoses and ineffective therapeutic approaches.
  • A history of relatives with mental illness.
  • Opting only for antidepressants and not undertaking psychological therapy.
  • Stressful experiences. For example, constant challenges, adversity and sleep problems.
  • Not finding a suitable antidepressant. In fact, some patients spend years trying different types.
  • Other clinical comorbidities.

The health risks of taking antidepressants for life

Long-term prescription of antidepressants is not without risk. The same happens with other drugs that are consumed for years. Fortunately, antidepressants today tend to have fewer side effects. Also, doctors will always try to guide the patient. For example, they may suggest that you gradually stop taking them or replace them with milder drugs.

Antidepressants become less effective over time. Therefore, other options should be considered, based on the particular needs of the patients. The University of Auckland (New Zealand), studied the effects of prolonged administration of antidepressants. Are the following:

  • Fatigue.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Weight gain.
  • sexual dysfunction.
  • Social disconnect
  • Risk of suffering from diabetes.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders.
  • The patient feels that he has become addicted.
  • They feel limited in experiencing positive emotions.

The medical condition of each patient may cause certain effects of prolonged administration. The most obvious symptom is that depressive symptoms intensify. This can lead the patient to reinforce the idea that she should continue to use the drugs. However, what they really need is another treatment approach.

Patients should always discuss any side effects of the antidepressants they experience with their specialist. They can always prescribe another psychoactive drug that best suits their needs/particularities.

Psychologist in therapy answering a patient the question of whether they are antidepressants for life
Psychological therapy, added to antidepressants in a timely manner, can prevent relapses of depression.

How to avoid the chronic consumption of antidepressants

As we said at the beginning, antidepressants are not for life. But each individual has their own needs and requires a personalized approach. This can sometimes mean that patients spend several years consuming this type of drug.

If you want to avoid this situation, psychological therapy and lifestyle changes are the answer. In fact, you should only take antidepressants if your doctor recommends it. Because while these drugs are effective, they only address the symptom, never the root of the problem. This is why psychological help is so important.

Currently, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression is the most effective for avoiding relapse. A study conducted by Dr. John D. Teasdale and colleagues from the University of Oxford (UK) highlights the benefits of this approach. Indeed, without a doubt, seeking the help of an expert is always the way to go.

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