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Antidepressants may not yield long-term improvements for some individuals. Ismael Juan Salcedo/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • One of the most widely used treatments for depression is antidepressant medications. They are often intended for short-term use.
  • Although antidepressants have some benefits for certain individuals, their impact on the overall quality of life in the long term is not fully understood.
  • A new study suggests that using antidepressants might not improve the overall quality of life for people with depression.

Depression is a mood disorder that impacts both how people feel and function. Antidepressants are medications doctors often prescribe to treat depression and improve symptoms. However, researchers are still learning about their effectiveness in the long term.

A recent study published in the journal PLOS One found that people with depression who used antidepressants for long periods of time did not have higher improvements in their quality of life compared to people with depression who did not use antidepressants.

The study’s results raise questions about how to use medications combined with other methods of care.

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that depression is a severe mood disorder that can impact people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. It can interfere with people’s everyday lives and make it difficult for them to do the activities they want to do.

A doctor can diagnose people with depression if they have had specific symptoms for longer than two weeks. Some common symptoms of depression include the following:

  • Feelings of helplessness, guilt, hopelessness, pessimism, or worthlessness
  • Lack of energy or increased fatigue
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Losing interest or lack of pleasure in activities or hobbies
  • Problems with concentrating or making decisions

Treatment for depression involves many components, but one major part is medication. Antidepressants are a group of medications, and they work in different ways. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) help increase serotonin and epinephrine levels in the brain.

People with depression should take antidepressants under appropriate supervision from their doctors.

In general, antidepressants can be an effective treatment for people with depression. However, researchers are still discovering the full effectiveness of antidepressants and their impact on overall well-being and quality of life.

The study in question examined the quality of life of two groups of people with depression: those who used antidepressant medications and those who did not. The health-related quality of life includes elements of physical and mental health.

The physical component focused on aspects of physical health like pain, physical health problems, and energy levels. The mental part focused on factors like social functioning, psychological well-being, and limitations due to emotional issues.

For the study, the researchers used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), which evaluates health through a system of self-reports from people while doctors and employers help to verify the data.

Researchers used the MEPS medical files from 2005 to 2015 to identify adults who had depression and whether or not they used antidepressant medications. They analyzed data from survey participants who had a two-year follow-up.

Researchers wanted to see if the quality of life was better over time for participants that used antidepressants. They did find that those who used antidepressants had some improvement in the mental component summary.

However, they found no significant difference in the quality of life for participants who used antidepressants compared to those who did not. The results indicate that antidepressants do not help improve quality of life over time.

The study did have several limitations. Researchers in this study could not determine the cause, and there was a risk of confounding.

Their data did not distinguish between different types of depression, the severity of depression, or when the depression was diagnosed. Some people with other mood disorders may also have been included in the analysis based on the methods used.

In addition, the researchers note that the numbers they collected of people with depression in the U.S. might be underestimated.

The study does not imply that people with depression should stop using medications or that antidepressants aren’t a valuable component in treating depression. However, experts need to do more research on the long-term effects of these medications on quality of life.

Researchers can also explore how to incorporate the use of other treatment strategies in the treatment of depression.

Study author Dr. Omar Almohammed, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, noted the following to MNT:

“Although we still need our patients with depression to continue using their antidepressant medications, long-term studies evaluating the actual impact of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions on these patients’ quality of life is needed.”

“[T]he role of cognitive and behavioral interventions on the long term-management of depression needs to be further evaluated in an effort to improve the ultimate goal of care for these patients—improving their overall quality of life.”
— Dr. Omar Almohammed

Prof. Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, who was not involved in the study, noted the following to MNT:

“This enormous secondary database analysis fits broadly with everything we know about pharmacotherapy for depression: it has weak or even absent effects on functioning and quality of life, especially long term. A study like this cannot say why but it can challenge why clinical care continues down this same road, year after year.”

He noted that we could focus future efforts on creating more individualized treatments.

He explained:

“It could make sense to ignore huge individual differences in what people need and keep applying ‘one size fits all’ solutions, often pharmacological if the results were great or even good.”

Prof. Hayes said the study showed that clinical practice and research need to change.

“People have a right to demand more personalized care that takes their specific struggles with mood, thought, and living more seriously, and that delivers evidence-based solutions that not only work, [but] we know why they do.”
— Prof. Steven C. Hayes