What are antidepressants? And do they work? The Mix explains antidepressants, the different types, and how to get them.

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What do you need to know?

What are antidepressants?

Antidepressants are a type of medication used to treat depression. They’re also used to treat OCD, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other mental health issues.

How do antidepressants work?

They’re thought to increase the levels of the ‘mood chemicals’ serotonin and norepinephrine, improving your mood and levelling out your emotions. If you want to know more about how they work, go to the NHS or Royal College of Psychiatrists websites.

But… do antidepressants actually work?

Around 50%-65% of people with depression find taking antidepressants helps, but they don’t help everyone. Ask your GP about all of your treatment options so you can decide together what’s best for you.

Antidepressants help with your depressive feelings, but they don’t deal with the causes of your depression. So it’s important to look at other treatments, like counselling or psychotherapy, or changing the parts of your life that are getting you down, alongside the medication.

Some types of antidepressants might work better for you than others. They take at least three weeks to have an effect, but if they haven’t helped after six weeks, then go back to your GP to discuss trying a different type.

If you’re still not sure whether you want to take them or not, read our article here.

Where can I get antidepressants?

Antidepressants are prescribed by your GP – you can’t buy them over the counter, and you certainly shouldn’t try and buy them over the internet.

Your GP will talk to you about how you’re feeling before discussing possible medication and therapies. If they prescribe antidepressants, they should explain how and when to take them and any possible side-effects.

If you’re worried about what you’ll say to your doctor, read our article on getting help for mental health.

Questions to ask your doctor

If your GP prescribes you an antidepressant, make sure you know as much about the medication as possible. Here are some questions you might want to ask them:

  • What are the possible side-effects and how long will they last?
  • Are there any foods I shouldn’t eat?
  • When should I take them and how often?
  • Will they make me sleepy?
  • How long should I take them for?
  • When I stop taking them will there be any withdrawal symptoms?

If you forget to ask your doctor anything you can always ask your pharmacist, as they know the answers too.

What are the side-effects of antidepressants?

Different antidepressants have different side-effects, but most common are nausea, sleeping problems and issues having orgasms. Lists of side-effects tend to look quite long and scary, but most people only experience a few mild ones. It’s understandable to worry about side-effects, so we asked a psychiatrist to explain more.

You can also check the side-effects of a specific antidepressant on the NHS website.

If the side-effects get too much, it’s really important to tell your GP – don’t suffer in silence.

What types of antidepressant are there?

There are lots of different antidepressants, all with broad names to describe how they work. Some have more serious side-effects than others, so ensure you’ve chatted with your doctor about what you’ve been prescribed and why.

The five broad types of antidepressants are:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common antidepressants because they have the least side-effects. They’re also prescribed to help people with bulimia or anxiety.

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) work in a similar way to SSRIs.

Noradrenergic and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs) have very similar side-effects to SSRIs, but aren’t so likely to interfere with your sex life.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) aren’t usually recommended at first because an overdose is dangerous and they have worse side-effects. They’re only usually given to people with severe depression or anxiety when other treatments haven’t worked.

Some of them are sedatives, meaning they make you feel sleepy.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are only used if other types of antidepressant aren’t effective. If you’re on MAOIs you need to be careful about what you eat and drink, as they can cause high blood pressure. Your doctor will explain which foods to avoid.

Who shouldn’t take antidepressants?

You’re likely to be told to avoid medication if you’re:

  • Pregnant: your needs will always be taken into consideration, but there’s a possible risk to an unborn child, so every alternative should be explored before prescribing antidepressants
  • Breastfeeding: you can pass any drugs to your baby through breast milk
  • On other medication: antidepressants can interact with a number of different types of drug, and some combinations can be dangerous, so make sure your doctor is aware of any other drugs you’re taking
  • A heavy drinker: alcohol is a depressant and can interact badly with antidepressants

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015