In recent days a friend told me that sometimes I am too negative when it comes to the contributions of psychiatry and psychology to the care of those who struggle with worry and sadness. And, I must admit that I often find myself telling readers about medications and therapies that really do not seem to work well.  One subject that my friend said that I was out of balance on was the side effects of anti-depressant medications. He said that biblical counselors over emphasize the side effects and under estimate the benefits of taking these medicines.

Well, I value my friend and his opinion. But, if medicine is going to be effective and helpful, our opinions about it must be founded in scientific fact. This week I read an article that dealt with the incidence of side effects among patients who take antidepressants.[i] To start with the positive, the study looked at the incidence of side effects in 1829 patients living in New Zealand. Eighty percent of the patients reported that they were helped by the medication.

However, the patients also reported that they had side effects. The authors noted that “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.” The side effects reported were significant.

In the 18 to 25 year age group, half reported suicidal feelings and in the total group one third reported suicidal feelings. Sexual difficulties were reported by 62%, and feeling emotionally numb by 60%. Other adverse effects included not feeling like myself in 52%, a reduction of positive feelings in 42%, caring less about others in 39%. Withdrawal effects were reported in 55%. [ii]

So, there it is the positive and the negative. The negative looms larger perhaps than my friend or any of us were aware. Side effects with the current crop of antidepressant medications are frequent, troublesome and sometimes severe. The author, Professor John Read said, “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.”

I have no way of knowing whether or not biblical counselors overestimate the side effects of antidepressants. No one has done any research about it. I do remember once when a representative of an antidepressant manufacturer came to my office and told me that a new medication had almost no side effects. I did not laugh out loud, but I did chuckle inside. Somehow I think like Professor Read that the side effects of antidepressants have been minimized.

On the other hand we do know by research that the benefits have been over estimated.[iii] Whenever a patient considers taking any kind of medicine there are two important things they need to know. How effective is the treatment. In real numbers how often does this medicine cure the disease? And, equally important, in real numbers how often do patients suffer side effects? With that kind of information we can make decisions to take or not take medicine based on scientific fact not on emotion.
[i] Psychological side-effects of anti-depressants worse than thought. ScienceDaily, February 25, 2014.

 [ii] Adverse emotional and interpersonal effects reported by 1829 New Zealanders while taking antidepressants, Psychiatry Research, 2014 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2014.01.042 John Read, Claire Cartwright, Kerry Gibson.

[iii] See chapters 1-6, Good Mood Bad Mood, Shepherd Press.

Leave a Reply.