There is a stigma associated with mental illness, as well as a misconception about the benefits and use of antidepressants. Unfortunately, these two factors serve as major barriers to people seeking help.
Depression does not discriminate
It is a common misconception that depression is a condition that can be overcome by ‘snapping out of it’. Yet, no one chooses to be depressed. Depression is not a sign of weakness, a result of wallowing in grief or sadness, a lack of positive thinking, or self-pity.
It is a medical condition that impacts brain function due to biological or environmental factors. Various elements contribute to depressive episodes, including:
- early adversity
- traumatic experiences
- various kinds of abuse
- socio-economic status
- loss and bereavement
What are the symptoms?
Depression manifests as a persistent feeling of sadness as well as a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. It can typically last for more than two weeks. It affects thinking, memory, motivation, eating, and sleeping patterns and can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms of depression for more than two weeks, it is essential to seek help:
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
- Persistent sad, or empty, mood
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness, and self-reproach
- Insomnia or hypersomnia (oversleeping), or early morning awakening
- Loss of appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and weight gain
- Decreased energy, fatigue, and feeling run down
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Thoughts of death or suicide, and suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability, and hostility
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
- Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain
- Deterioration of social relationships
Depression is treatable
Depression is treatable through medication that addresses the underlying biological issues contributing to the condition. The most common treatment approach combines medication with talk therapy (psychotherapy). Also, this approach tends to have the best outcome for patients.
Most doctors initially prescribe selective serotine reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Sertraline and Fluoxetine, to ease symptoms of moderate to severe depression. Some people fear antidepressants, but it is safe to use. There are several types of antidepressants, with different side effect profiles.
SSRIs work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that carries signals between the brain’s nerve cells, ultimately improving one’s mood. This medication prevents the reabsorption of serotonin into nerve cells, thereby increasing its availability and improving message transmission.
The ultimate goal of antidepressants is to restore the balance of deficiencies of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that may be causing depressive symptoms.
How effective are antidepressants?
While many individuals respond well to the first prescription of antidepressants, some may need to try many different antidepressants before finding the one that works best for them.
It is crucial to be patient when using antidepressants and to take the medication daily as prescribed by a doctor. It may take several weeks for the medication to take full effect, and it is important to continue with the prescription for at least six months to prevent symptoms from recurring.
Every person responds differently to antidepressants, and some individuals may need long-term usage.
Also, regular appointments with a doctor to discuss symptoms and make necessary medication adjustments are important.
It is vital not to stop the medication or reduce the dosage independently, even if feeling better. Unlike other medications such as sleeping tablets, antidepressants do not cause physical dependence or addiction. A doctor’s guidance is crucial when increasing or reducing the dosage or ending the treatment.
Addressing the underlying causes
While antidepressants can treat symptoms, they may not always address the underlying causes of depression. Talk therapy is highly beneficial in addressing depressive symptoms by exploring, and processing, past and current experiences with a trained professional such as a psychologist.
This approach is particularly useful for situational depressive episodes (such as the loss of a loved one or partner conflict) or childhood trauma, as it helps the patient gain clarity and an understanding of the root causes of distress.
Working with antidepressants
Once you have consulted with your doctor and have been prescribed antidepressants, it is important to consider the following to achieve the best results from the medication:
- Allow enough time. Give the medication enough time to work before you stop taking them. Generally, antidepressants take between two and six weeks before presenting their full effects.
- Take the full dosage. Follow your doctor’s instructions and take the full dosage without skipping any days or tablets. This will ensure that the medication works as it should. Your doctor will advise when it is time to gradually decrease the prescription.
- Don’t stop. You should ask your doctor about when it is time to stop using antidepressants. Stopping the medication too soon, even if you are feeling better, can lead to depression returning or worsening.
- Don’t give up. Different antidepressants work in different ways. As such, your doctor may have to adjust your medication – and its dose – before finding the right one that relieves your symptoms.
To get help for your friends, family, colleagues, or yourself, please:
- speak to your GP, or
- contact a free mental health service like Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP.
Remember, seeking professional help is crucial in managing depression, and there are resources available to support you throughout your journey to recovery and living a healthy, fulfilling life.
MAIN IMAGE CREDIT:Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash
Who is the author?
Dr. Gagu Matsebula works full-time in private mental health care as a psychiatrist. He has previously worked in several hospitals in Gauteng, South Africa while working in the state sector.
He has an interest in trauma, anxiety, depression, mental health promotion, and the intersection between mental illness and culture.