As the number of people using antidepressants in the UK soars amid the lingering mental health effects of lockdown, there is more scrutiny around their usage than ever.
Antidepressants come in three major forms: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).
All of these medications help balance the amount of serotonin in our brain. Also known as the ‘happy hormone’, serotonin is the main neurotransmitter resposible for regulating our mood. As well as this, SNRIs and TCAs also help to balance the presence of norepinephrine: the neurotransmitter responsible for modulating anxiety and our response to stress.
However, after a recent study suggested that depression isn’t caused by a ‘chemical imbalance,’ the effectivity of antidepressants have been called into question once again, with many arguing that antidepressant tablets are overprescribed.
Yet, the most recent figures show that 7.3million people in the UK are using antidepressants, which accounts for 17% of the adult population.
As well as depression, antidepressants are used to treat a number of anxiety disorders, panic disorders, eating disorders, phobias, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Metro.co.uk spoke to a number of people who use antidepressants to treat various mental health conditions — and for many, the drugs proved to be not a shortcut or placebo, but a vital lifeline.
Josh, 26, tells Metro.co.uk that he ‘struggled for years’ with an eating disorder, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
My mental health is improved to a level I never thought possible
‘I felt out of control and like I was on a downward spiral,’ he shares. ‘It took some time to get the right dosage and right medications, but it helped me feel more in control — ultimately, they saved my life.’
Like many people with mental health issues, Josh’s treatment plan involved a combination of medication and therapeutic intervention.
‘Gradually, I felt like I had the energy and stability to be able deal with my struggles and address past trauma,’ he explains. ‘I’m not sure I would have been able to benefit from therapy had I not been given a sense of stability by my antidepressants.’
‘Now, my mental health is improved to a level I never thought possible.’
Rachel, 23, experienced severe depression and bereavement during lockdown.
She tells us: ‘I had this realisation that I was actually really unwell.
‘I found myself googling symptoms of depression, and realised that I wasn’t just sad. I was sick.’
Rachel called her GP, who put her on 20mg of the SSRI antidepressant citalopram.
‘I was washing every day,’ she recalls. ‘I tidied, but I still felt numb.
‘I just had no emotion, and no desire to do anything.
‘I felt I like a movie character or something — like I was not me. I just happened to just be controlling this body.’
After a medication review with her GP, Rachel’s dose increased to 40mg. And it was then that she saw vast improvements in her mental health.
‘It’s almost like life kind of got its colour back,’ she tells us. ‘I cared about things and wanted to do things I loved again.
Antidepressants don’t take away your spark. They gave mine back to me.
‘I would leave the house, get dressed, and instead of just shoving toast in my mouth, I would actually make myself food that made me feel happy.’
Like Josh, Rachel is also attending therapy to address her mental health issues.
‘But antidepressants have made me me again,’ she says. ‘They’ve made me able to look through the world and feel things, and I think negative depictions of antidepressants can rob people from that.
‘They don’t work for everybody, but these drugs, for me, don’t fit that experience.
‘They don’t change who you are. They don’t alter who you are as a person or take away your spark. They gave mine back to me.’
As a mental health nurse who deals with anxiety and depression, Susan Adair is acutely aware of the impact of mental health crises — but a diagnosis of multiple chronic pain conditions caused her own mental health to snowball.
‘It’s exceptionally difficult to be in pain 24/7,’ she explains. After a doctor increased her dose of duloxetine from 60mg to 90mg, Susan’s quality of life vastly improved.
She explains: ‘My mood is stable now. There are no peaks and pits, and as a result I feel so much more regulated.
‘I don’t wake up wondering if today is going to be a bad day.
‘I’m on an even keel and it’s made my life so much easier to live as a result.’
She adds that being on antidepressants has enabled her to be ‘a better mum and wife’.
‘I’m not constantly worrying about whether a bad day is going to send to bed for a week, or if I interpret something that someone said in the incorrect way and then get so anxious I can hardly function,’ she explains.
However, antidepressants vary in effectiveness depending on the person, and what mental health condition they are prescribed to treat.
James, for example, takes antidepressants to treat his OCD.
‘They aren’t problem solvers, but they definitely take the edge off for me,’ he explains. ‘They’re definitely helpful, without a doubt, just not a solution — especially with OCD.
‘From my experience, with OCD, you need to do the gradual exposures [Exposure Response Prevention], but antidepressants certainly help minimise the flooding of anxiety.
‘As with almost anything, one approach is going to work for some and not others.’
Dan, who has clinical depression and anxiety, has a similar perspective.
‘They are not happy pills or mood boosters, but they dramatically reduce the number of suicidal and self-harm thoughts I have,’ he tells us. ‘They take the edge off my condition and make daily life a little more worthwhile.’
However, after taking antidepressants for nearly nine years, Dan says he ‘wasn’t given nearly enough information’ about the potential side effects of antidepressants. In amongst the chat about the pros and cons of medication, this is something we must consider.
According to the NHS website, some of the side effects of antidepressants include drowsiness, agitation, dizziness, headaches, digestive issues, weight gain, a loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping.
‘People shouldn’t be afraid of taking them but there needs to be a much better discussion around their side effects,’ Dan adds.
‘The trial and error of getting it right is very frustrating but if it lets you wake up in the morning without feeling like you want to die, they’re vital.’
Need support? Contact the Samaritans
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
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