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Antidepressant medication

Factsheet

Quick facts 

  • Antidepressant medication can help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety by affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. 
  • There are different types of antidepressants, and types such as SSRIs and SNRIs are commonly prescribed. 
  • It is important to talk to a doctor about different options, side effects, and how to use medication effectively. 

What are antidepressants?  

Antidepressant medication refers to a few types of medication that can help relieve symptoms of low mood and anxiety. These medications balance your brain chemistry – by affecting neurotransmitters that influence mood and emotions. 

Antidepressant medication is often used to treat depression in combination with psychological therapies, but can also be used as part of treatment for other mental health issues. 

When are antidepressants used? 

Antidepressants are often used to reduce the symptoms of depression, such as: 

  • feeling extremely sad for no clear reason,  
  • loss of interest or pleasure in things you usually enjoy;  
  • sleeping too much or too little  
  • feelings of worthlessness, guilt or worry, and  
  • difficulty in thinking, making decisions or concentrating.  

Antidepressants may also be helpful in the treatment of other mental health issues, such as generalised anxiety disorder and eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

They may be prescribed when: 

  • a person has tried psychological treatments and not found them helpful so far 
  • symptoms are severe, distressing, or impacting a lot on daily life 
  • a person cannot access psychological treatments. 

A person may use antidepressants alone or while trying other options, like self-help, psychological therapies or support in the community, and lifestyle changes like improving sleep and exercise. 
 
Antidepressants are not for everyone, but for some people, they can be life-changing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to try medication, or needing medication, to improve your mental health. 

Are antidepressants effective? 

Antidepressants are generally very effective. Around 70% of people with major depressive disorder start to feel better after trying their first antidepressant.  

They are not addictive, do not make you euphoric, or change your personality. They simply help you react more realistically in your emotional responses. You may notice, for example, that you take in your stride little things that used to worry you or get you down. 

What treatment with antidepressant medication involves 

Initial consultation and prescription 

Antidepressant medication may be prescribed by a doctor (a GP or a psychiatrist). A doctor can discuss options with you, and prescribe you a dosage that they think matches your situation.  

Different medications work for different people. There are some things you and your doctor can talk over to help decide what is right for you: 

  • How severe your symptoms are and how they impact you 
  • What different types of medication are available  
  • What they recommend, and why 
  • Any side-effects and how to manage these 
  • What to do if you wish to stop taking the medication 
  • Any allergies or physical health problems you may have 
  • If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant 
  • Any other medications you are taking, or have taken previously 
  • How and when to take the medication  
  • How to store medication safely 
  • Other factors, such as foods which may need to be avoided. 

Taking the medication 

Studies show that people who take medication as recommended by their doctor are more likely to feel better than those who take too little or too much. So make sure that you follow the directions on the pack to get the best benefit from your medication. 

It can take several weeks, or even a few months, after the first dose of medication before it has an effect. It is a good idea to check in with your doctor over time to discuss how you are feeling, and if you have any concerns. 

 
Choosing the best medication is not always straightforward because the way people respond to medication is different. This means that finding the right one for you may involve trying one or more, or making adjustments to the dose. 

Coming off the medication 

When medication starts working and you feel better it can be tempting to stop taking it. Like people with diabetes or high blood-pressure, some people with depression and anxiety-related disorders need to take medication on an ongoing basis to ensure the depression or anxiety doesn’t return.  

However, others find that with ongoing psychological support or having learned new ways of coping with situations, they no longer need to take antidepressants regularly. 
 
Before stopping or reducing any medication it is important to discuss your reasons with your doctor. They can advise on the best ways to reduce the dose safely. Stopping antidepressant medication suddenly can cause you to feel agitated and uncomfortable, so this needs to be done step-by-step with your doctor.  

Types of antidepressant medication 

There are several types of antidepressant medication available such as:  

  • an older group, known as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) 
  • newer groups, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) 
  • Atypical antidepressants. 

Newer groups of antidepressants tend to have fewer side-effects and are safer when a wrong dose is taken. They are prescribed more often than the older types. 
 

Risks and side effects of antidepressant medication 

As with any type of medication, some people may experience side effects. Many of these settle down after a few weeks, when your body has adapted to the medication, while others may persist. Make sure you discuss any of the following side-effects with your doctor:  

  • Diarrhoea or constipation 
  • Nausea 
  • Headaches 
  • Sleep disturbance 
  • Lower sexual responsiveness 
  • Dizziness or blurred vision 
  • Weight changes 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Sweating. 

Some people unfortunately experience an increase in depression symptoms after starting an antidepressant medication. If you start to experience suicidal thoughts, or a worsening of mood and anxiety, it is important to take to your doctor as soon as possible.  

A doctor can suggest changes to minimise side-effects, such as changing your dosage, the time of day you take it, or the type of medication itself.  

Finding out more 

To learn more, a GP or psychiatrist can provide a personalised discussion about whether antidepresssants are the right option for you. 

Resources 

Antidepressant medication: Factsheet & Guide
https://www.sane.org/information-and-resources/facts-and-guides/antidepressant-medication

This Factsheet & Guide may be freely downloaded, copied and distributed on condition no change is made to the contents. SANE is not responsible for any actions taken as a result of information or opinions contained in the Factsheet.
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