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Adverse effects of antidepressants unusually high

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Growing concerns over psychological and interpersonal effects

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In the context of rapidly increasing antidepressant use internationally, and recent reviews raising concerns about efficacy and adverse effects.

Professor John Reed, Institute of Psychology Health and Psychology at the University of Liverpool commented “The medicalization of sadness and distress has reached bizarre levels. One in ten people in some countries are now prescribed antidepressants each year.”

"While the biological side-effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain and nausea, are well documented, the psychological and interpersonal effects have been largely ignored or denied. They appear to be alarmingly common.”

Professor Reed and colleagues in this new study surveyed the largest sample of adults who are on antidepressants.

An online questionnaire was completed by 1,829 adults that been prescribed antidepressants in the last five years (53% were first prescribed them between 2000 and 2009, and 52% reported taking them for more than three years). The questionnaire asked about 20 adverse events and the adults experience with, and beliefs about, antidepressants.

The results showed eight of the 20 adverse effects studied were reported by over half the participants; most frequently Sexual Difficulties (62%) and Feeling Emotionally Numb (60%). Percentages for other effects included: Feeling Not Like Myself ' (52%), 'reduction in positive feelings' (42%), 'caring less about others' (39%) and 'withdrawal effects' (55%). However, 82% reported that the drugs had helped alleviate their depression.

Total Adverse Effect scores were related to younger age, lower education and income, and type of antidepressant, but not to level of depression prior to taking antidepressants.

In their conclusion the researchers write “The adverse effects of antidepressants may be more frequent than previously reported, and include emotional and interpersonal effects.”

"While the biological side-effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain and nausea, are well documented, psychological and interpersonal issues have been largely ignored or denied. They appear to be alarmingly common, “said Professor Reed.

He concludes "Effects such as feeling emotionally numb and caring less about other people are of major concern. Our study also found that people are not being told about this when prescribed the drugs.

"Our finding that over a third of respondents reported suicidality 'as a result of taking the antidepressants' suggests that earlier studies may have underestimated the problem."

This study appears in Psychiatry Research.

There are many different types of drugs used in the treatment of depression, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), atypical antidepressants, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

While some side effects go away after the first few weeks of drug treatment, others persist and may even get worse.

Anyone who takes antidepressants can experience unpleasant or dangerous side effects, but certain individuals are at a higher risk:

  • People over 65. Studies show that SSRI medications may increase the risk for falls, fractures, and bone loss in older adults.
  • Pregnant women. The use of SSRI's late in pregnancy may lead to short-term withdrawal symptoms in newborns after delivery. Typical symptoms include tremor, restlessness, mild respiratory problems, and weak cry.
  • Teens and young adults. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all depression medications to include a warning label about the increased risk of suicide in children and young adults.
  • People who may have bipolar disorder. Antidepressants can actually make bipolar disorder worse or trigger a manic episode; there are other treatments available for those with bipolar disorder.

Types of antidepressants and their side effects can be viewed online at Help Guide.

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