Antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and Lexapro are now the third most widely prescribed group of drugs in the United States, and Americans are popping more antidepressants than ever before. The increase doesn’t necessarily mean that the drugs are being used inappropriately, but it’s necessary to understand why antidepressant use is growing. More than 10% of Americans now take antidepressants in any given year.

Using data from annual surveys by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers reviewed the records of 233,144 adult patients who made doctor visits between 1996 and 2007.

The study found that the percentage of prescriptions for antidepressants written by non-psychiatrists more than doubled from about 4% to almost 9% over the 12 year period. This included 9,454 antidepressant prescriptions for patients without a diagnosis of depression or other mental illness typically treated with the medication. For that group, the rate jumped from 2.5% at the start of the study period to 6.4%.

Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore comments:

“Both consumers and prescribers of antidepressants should be more knowledgeable about the indications (or symptoms) that antidepressants are better for. Although these drugs do not have many acute side effects, there may be more long-term adverse effects. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in long-term effects because they don’t need that for FDA approval.”

Antidepressants aren’t a silver bullet for depression. Medication doesn’t cure the underlying problem and is rarely a long-term solution. Not only do antidepressants come with significant side effects and dangers, but recent studies have also raised questions about their effectiveness.

The drugs prescribed to patients without a diagnosed mental health condition were more likely provided to white women between the ages of 35-64 and patients with public insurance and chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. The data also suggested that people complaining of nervousness, sleep problems, sexual dysfunction and an inability to quit smoking may be taking a vast amount of antidepressants.

Tony Tang, adjunct professor in the department of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois adds:

“Before antidepressants came along, many people simply turned to drinking and smoking to cope with minor stress.”

There are also withdrawal symptoms that arise when a person stops using the medications. If one stops abruptly, they may experience a number of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as crying spells, extreme restlessness, dizziness, fatigue, and aches and pains. These withdrawal symptoms are known as “antidepressant discontinuation syndrome.”

Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome is especially common when a person stops taking Paxil or Zoloft. Prozac, which has a longer half-life in the body, is the least likely to lead to withdrawal. However, all medications for depression can cause withdrawal symptoms.

Depression and anxiety are common symptoms when withdrawing from antidepressants. When depression is a withdrawal symptom, it’s often worse than the original depression that led to drug treatment in the first place. Unfortunately, many people mistake this withdrawal symptom for a return of their depressive illness and resume medication, creating a vicious circle.

Written by Sy Kraft