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3 Myths and Facts About Antidepressants (and Why They Don't Change Your Personality)

by Matthew S. Koval, M.D.

depressionMYTH: “Antidepressants are happy pills that change your personality.”
FACT: Antidepressants do not compel people to be unnaturally happy. Instead, they alleviate the symptoms abnormal brain-chemistry causes. They also don’t change your personality or make you a different person. In fact, experts generally believe antidepressants return you to your normal self—before you were depressed.

MYTH: “Antidepressants are addicting.”
FACT: There has never been concern about addiction. It is true that if you stop some of the medications too abruptly, you may experience some unpleasant effects, such as dizziness, nausea, lethargy and headache. Although doctors sometimes call this serotonin-withdrawal syndrome, it’s not the same as withdrawal from alcohol or street drugs. A more appropriate term would be serotonin-discontinuation syndrome.
MYTH: “People only need to take antidepressants on bad days.”
This myth often goes along with the false idea that as soon as your mood improves, you can discontinue your meds. But antidepressants aren’t like aspirin. You can’t just take them when you have symptoms.

Antidepressants work by normalizing brain chemistry. You usually have to take them consistently for several weeks before seeing improvement, and then you have to continue to take them to maintain that normal brain function.

Most health-care providers recommend that people stay on antidepressants for at least six to eight months after they feel their mood has improved. There is evidence that if you stop the medication before that, depression can come back. And for recurrent or chronic depression, experts believe you should continue the medications much longer, if not indefinitely. In these cases, we think of depression as a chronic illness not unlike high blood pressure or diabetes.

You may have heard that SSRIs can help treat severe PMS symptoms. Even for this use, most women take them every day.

, is a practicing psychiatrist and associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. Disclosure: He was formerly on the speakers bureau for GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company that makes antidepressants (Wellbutrin and Paxil).

Last updated and/or approved: April 2010. Original article appeared in September/October 2007 former print magazine. Bio current as of September 2007. This article is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.


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