Statistically, my local area has some of the highest levels of anti-depressant usage. This has been true for decades. My local area is well known for people that seem happy on the inside but have a house fire happening on the inside. And how do we know this? Because statistically, we also have one of the highest rates of suicide. Especially among teenagers. But wait, if anti-depressants are decreasing the amounts of depression and helping people feel better, shouldn’t our suicide rate be among the lowest? Something just isn’t adding up here.
I’ve been working primarily with teenagers in mental health and social services for almost twenty years and I almost never and I mean almost never encounter a teenager that gets really good results from anti-depressant medication. That doesn’t include medication for things like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or real cases of ADHD. I just don’t think that kids should be given anti-depressants. It’s not helpful to be told that your 15 and your brain is broken and so take these drugs to fix it. Kids don’t need to hear that.
Here you go, take your sugar pills
I recently read some studies that indicate that in most cases where an adult gets positive results from taking anti-depressants, there’s a good chance that they are just experiencing a placebo effect. The placebo effect is a well-documented phenomenon and one that has been observed for what seems to be several centuries and yet there’s a staggering amount of people giving that perplexed look when you bring it up and they say “the what now?”
This happened to me at the gym one day when I was sitting in the sauna and this lady started talking about how great essential oils are. When I told her that the placebo effect has more documented research than those oils she looked at me like I was speaking gibberish. “The whuh huh?”
If you’re not familiar with the placebo effect it just basically means that if you have a problem, like a physical ailment, and I tell you that I have a new miracle drug that droves of people have been cured by and if you take it then you will be cured, you are likely to feel better even though that “miracle drug” is just a sugar pill. The placebo effect is a rabbit hole that people should really spend some time in. It’s well worth some personal research.
But here’s where it gets interesting. In clinical trials, people seemed to get just as much effectiveness out of taking a placebo for their depression as when they took anti-depressants. The conclusion here is that there’s a really good chance that people feel better when they take anti-depressants simply because they believe that it will help them feel better. The most interesting part about this theory and the thing that will dump you on your head is that there is more than ample research here. The evidence is undeniable.
So here’s the bad news in all of this. Anti-depressants aren’t going to fix how you feel and they definitely aren’t going to fix your life. I actually fielded a question online where somebody wanted to know, genuinely, if anti-depressants would improve their self-esteem. No, sorry. In fact, it would seem that they don’t fix much of anything, really.
This angers some people. In fact, it infuriates them. I suspect that they react so strongly because it’s extremely invalidating. As though their experience with depression and the remedy for it is being deemed as fake. I would never discount an individuals experience depression because I’ve had my own dark days and understand how frustrating things are when people say things like, “just look on the bright side.”
It’s also bothersome when you realize that you have to take some personal responsibility for how you feel but I have to believe that this is sort of the equivalent of eating your vegetables. It’s not something that you really want or like to do, at least at first, but you do it anyways because you know that’s what’s necessary. The part that most people don’t anticipate is not only that they just feel better, which is seriously one thing that shouldn’t be downplayed, but they actually feel empowered when they start to exercise responsibility for how they feel.
“Do you notice a difference from taking your medication?”
The drugs don’t really work. I’ve asked dozens of people if they felt like their anti-depressant was helping or if they noticed a difference. An occasional adult will tell me that they feel better and that it really helps them but I almost never encounter a teenager that says that they feel better from taking it. It’s far more common, instead, for them to tell me that they had to stop taking it because they suddenly felt suicidal and damn near went through with it. People ask me frequently if they can stop taking it because they don’t think it’s doing any good. I’m not a doctor but I always tell them not to stop taking it cold turkey. This also a good way to have your emotions completely crash and end up on the psych floor at the hospital because you were seriously contemplating suicide. Don’t stop cold turkey.
But let’s imagine for a moment that anti-depressants really are working for people and let’s also assume that people are depressed, not because their brain is broken and flawed and is unable to produce the right chemicals in the right portions but because their lives are void of meaning and purpose, among other things. This would indicate, simply, that the drugs are creating a false sense of reality. They are causing you to live in a state of denial by creating an emotional cushion and as long as that emotional cushion exists, people are less likely to take necessary action that will actually fix their lives. When I think of it like that, it sounds bad. Knowing that my perception and my emotions that I experience about my reality are a fabrication? A lie? And the purpose of those drugs, therefore, would be to keep people in the warm cocoon of those lies? No thanks.
Despite all the possible alternatives to our reality, one basic fact remains as the giant elephant in the room. We’re taking obscene amounts of these drugs and we’re more depressed and suicidal than we have ever been. If anti-depressants really worked we’d be living in a reality that was closer to some kind zippity-do-dah sing along.
Fortunately for me, my job is to give people alternatives to treating depression outside of medication. When people start investing effort into changing how they think and how they act, that’s when they see their depression improve. Good therapy, in my experience, has a drastically higher success rate at treating depression than taking pills that are only made of false promises.