Having studied psychology and mental health disorders for many years (as well as being a licensed practicing clinician), I have long been troubled by the trend for doctors to quickly prescribe anti-depressants to their patients without first encouraging other, safer alternatives. Since the 1990’s, increasingly more doctors have quickly bypassed recommending things like professional counseling, exercise, or trying new hobbies and interests (all things that can really help with mood state), and instead quickly scribbled out scripts for anti-depressants. Of course, if these new pills worked significantly better than the other ideas I just presented, and if these pills were 100% safe, I don’t think using them would be much of a concern. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.
Last night 60 Minutes ran a segment on the efficacy of anti-depressants versus placebo effects, citing Harvard social scientist Irving Kirsch’s discoveries when evaluating real anti-depressant medications against placebos (or sugar pills). Kirsch’s findings were really nothing new, and certainly not any different than what other research scientists have known for years — that is, anti-depressants only “work” because of the belief the patient has when using them, and not due to the chemical properties of the drugs themselves. In other words, the changes patients claim they experience are due to the placebo effect, not the medication.
The problem, however, is that in the United States we are constantly bombarded with really great advertising that tells us if we are depressed, the answer to our problems might just be one quick office visit away. As one of only two countries in the world that allows for direct drug marketing to consumers on television, these fancy ads coupled with our intense desire to get better provide for the perfect storm, so to speak. In other words, when we feel depressed and are “ripe” for an answer, and then see a 30 second ad of a Zoloft egg bouncing around happy, it’s easy to see why so many potential consumers light up with excitement and quickly schedule a visit with their doctor as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the problems we experience in life don’t simply “go away” by taking a pill (similarly to how they don’t go away from getting drunk, either). The problems at home, mounting bills, and battles with health problems don’t get better by taking a pill — these situations only improve by learning important life coping skills.
So why are anti-depressants so widespread if:
A) they have been scientifically found to not work any better than a sugar pill, and
B) they put the patient at great risk for side-, interaction-, and withdrawal effects — check the black box warnings to learn more
Listed below are some of the big reasons why so many people continue to be prescribed these drugs:
- There is huge money in pharmaceuticals today, and these companies are not afraid to spend money. This is the reason why we see so many ads today, and the more of the ads we see the more confident we become that these drugs really “work.” Most people figure that if they see something enough, it must be true – this is called the mere exposure effect.
- Patients often ask their doctors directly for these medications, and often doctors are happy to acquiesce. In some cases, doctors really believe in the value of anti-depressants, while in other cases doctors assume the placebo effect will “work” and that the potential side effects are worth the risk. In other cases doctors know that patients expect to be given drugs during medical appointments, and would feel short-changed if the doctor told them the real things that help with mood state – like counseling and exercise programs.
- When clients do experience side effects, in most cases they continue to use these drugs because they blame the side effects on their disorder (i.e. depression), and not the medications! In fact, in some cases patients take even more of the medication in order to overcome the side effects.
While we would all love to find a quick fix for our problems in life, the reality is these answers are not in the form of anti-depressant pills (as science is revealing through ongoing empirical findings). Scott Peck, author of the popular The Road Less Traveled, starts his book with one very important sentence:
Life is difficult.
Think about that for a moment — the problems we face in life are difficult, and success doesn’t happen from casual efforts. We need to also remember that there are no fast “silver bullet” answers when it comes to life’s problems, even if we wish there were. Anti-depressants, which work no better than placebos and carry many potential problems with them, should not be the first thing we seek when we hit rough waters in life. Instead, learning life skills like communication skills, conflict resolution, and stress reducing techniques should be tried first, along with developing a physical exercise program. Most people dramatically improve their mood state from just those life changes, and professional counseling can help round out the self-improvement process for those still looking for even better improvement.
Check out our Life Wellness programs to help improve mood state and the quality of your life!