Antidepressant Myths Debunked and How to Support Your Loved One
October 3, 2022
For information about medications used in depression treatment, download our Adult Depression Treatment Fact Sheet.
Taking medication for mental health conditions is a highly-stigmatized topic. Misconceptions that medicine causes more harm than benefit can foster fear and inhibit people from pursuing treatment.
Thanks to ongoing research, we continue to learn more about the brain year after year. With what we know now, we have seen that medication is often part of an effective treatment plan for depression. Antidepressants are the most widely prescribed medication to treat Major Depressive Disorder (“MDD,” referred to as “clinical depression” or “depression”).
In this article, we break down some common myths that get in the way of taking medication and offer ways you can support your loved one through the treatment process.
Myth: People Who Start Taking Antidepressants Will Be Cured Immediately
It would be amazing if antidepressants resolved depression symptoms as soon as your loved one took their first dose! But antidepressants are not a “magic pill.” Medication takes time to work. In general, people have a noticeable response within 4-6 weeks. For others, it can take as long as 12 weeks.
Mental health providers typically recommend treatment that includes both therapy AND medication. Medication can help lift the fog of depression, but a person experiencing depression often needs support and to learn skills like stress management, emotion regulation, and effective communication.
Remind your loved one that depression treatment takes time. Even if results are not occurring immediately, they are taking the steps that will help them get well. Encourage them not to give up and to talk to a doctor if their medication doesn’t seem to be helping.
Waiting for medication response is draining. Acknowledge that this is a difficult process. Encourage them to tend to their own care, too. Eating well, good sleep, meditation, and even small amounts of exercise benefit everyone. You can help by modeling your own self-care. Also encourage them to engage in activities that help them feel connected, such as getting together with a friend, joining a support group, or volunteering.
Myth: Once a Person Is on Antidepressants, They Are on Them for Life
Many people don’t want to start taking antidepressants because they worry they will have to rely on them for the rest of their life. However, only a small percentage of people need long-term medication to avoid relapse.
Your loved one’s doctor will recommend that they stay on antidepressants for several months after depression symptoms stop. While the period of time can be different from person to person, the American Psychiatric Association recommends continuing for 4 to 9 months before weaning off the medication (tapering).
You can encourage your loved one to share this concern with their health care provider. The provider will monitor the need for medication and help your loved one determine the right time to begin the process of ending that part of their treatment.
And if they do stay on medication for a longer period, it’s generally preferable if it provides relief or stability to experiencing ongoing depression symptoms.
Myth: It’s Safe to Stop Medication Once a Person Feels Better
Imagine this scenario: Your loved one has been routinely taking their medication and they feel great! They excitedly tell you that they have decided to stop their medication “cold turkey” (abruptly).
As a caregiver, that situation is probably not hard to imagine. It may even make sense that once your loved one feels like they have their depression under control that they would consider ending treatment. However, stopping medication without support from a medical professional can lead to withdrawal side effects or a relapse of depression.
Start by empathizing with your loved one, “I’m so glad you’re feeling so much better!” Gently remind them that it’s taken time to get to this place and it takes time to get off medication. Help them understand what can happen when stopping antidepressants too soon. Remind them that it does not mean they have to stay on the medication forever, but it’s essential to talk to their prescriber first.
Myth: If an Antidepressant Worked for One Family Member It Works for the Entire Family
One medication may have worked for Aunt Sally, but that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone in the family. Although you share DNA with your relatives, every person is unique. Treatment is not one-size-fits-all and often requires trying different medications before landing on one that helps manage symptoms.
Fortunately, there are genetic tests that can indicate how a person may respond to certain medications to help identify which might work best. Talk to your loved one’s prescriber to see if genetic testing may be an option worth pursuing.
The process of trying different medications can be intimidating and exhausting. You can support your loved one by tracking their symptoms and side effects. Keep a list of your observations and ask your loved one if you can participate in their prescriber appointments to share your insights.
It’s perfectly normal to have questions about medication. Always bring your concerns to the treatment team! We hope that this information helps you and your loved one continue to make informed decisions about depression treatment.