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Wavering anti-depressant medication myths debunked


October 21, 2011

More than 10 percent of Americans take anti-depressants, medication which helps alleviate depression. Unfortunately, most believe myths surrounding their problems and their resulting treatments.

Most anti-depressants alter brain chemistry by increasing the amounts of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and/or dopamine available in the brain. Once the availability increases, people typically experience elevated moods. Because of this improvement, people assume that anti-depressants cure some sort of “biochemical imbalance.” However, this belief is completely misled.

There is no possible way to test for a biochemical deficiency. None. No blood test or brain scan can determine whether a person demonstrates a low level of certain neurotransmitters. Therefore, no method exists to conclude that a deficiency of neurotransmitters causes depression.

To better understand this concept, look at it in terms of drinking alcohol. If a man drinks five beers at a bar each night and notices he feels much happier, one cannot realistically conclude that this man had too low of a blood alcohol level. While the alcohol certainly helped increase his happiness, in no way did it fix a “deficiency.” However, practitioners and the public use a similarly mislead view when they believe anti-depressants offer a cure for this unproven deficiency. As one psychology professor half-joked, “If you didn’t have a biochemical imbalance before you took the medication, you do now.” This statement further illuminates the dangers of adding possibly unnecessary chemicals to one’s body (in case extensive side effects and suicide warnings failed to demonstrate such perils). However, keep in mind that if anti-depressants truly help, one should not discontinue their use merely because they alone do not fix the true cause of depression. However, it never hurts to consider other treatments.

The most common alternative (or supplement) to antidepressant medication is therapy. However, due partially to stigma, many people avoid this route. Since everyone visits the doctor’s office and receives prescriptions, this action is socially accepted and not questioned. However, not everyone visits a therapist’s office, so others may ignorantly label these people as “crazy;” on the contrary, these people demonstrate the important ability to recognize their problems, own them, and then seek help from a professional.

Because biological views cannot fully explain the causes of depression, one should reconsider using certain terminology. A famous psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, explains that if depression were an “illness,” neurologists—doctors of the brain, would treat it. Instead, he more accurately deems depression as a “problem in living.”

In addition, one of UW-River Falls’ psychology professors explains that terminology like “depression” is a label, not an explanation. By this, he means that depression is merely a description of symptoms. Depression does not explain why those symptoms occur, it merely offers a shorthand way of saying that a person demonstrates irregular sleep and eating patterns, feels sad and hopeless, etc. Saying that a person sleeps a lot because she is depressed is equivalent to saying that a person sleeps a lot because she sleeps a lot. To eliminate this problem, one must say that a person exhibits depression, and realize that the cause (whether it is biological, socio-cultural, personal, situational, etc.) is something entirely different from the assigned label of depression.

To truly understand one’s problems and treatments, people must overcome the myths surrounding such topics. The truths are: biochemical imbalances are merely theoretical, therapy should not be stigmatized, and depression is only a label.

Jaime Haines is an exuberant puppy-lover and “House” addict and plans to use her psychology degree to encourage activism and well-being through counseling, workshops, speeches, and the written word.