Antidepressants: Do They Help? Or Don’t They?

The Controversy

The media has continued to highlight the high-stakes battle that pharmaceutical companies have waged to make a profit by convincing doctors to prescribe antidepressants. Recent articles have focused more on the fact that pharmaceutical companies were not made to release studies that failed to demonstrate effectiveness of their products. Some articles have focused more on the failure of manufacturers to reveal potential adverse reactions or side effects.

This unbalanced media coverage has the potential to undermine effective treatment of psychiatric disorders. While the pharmaceutical companies stand to profit by convincing people that mental health conditions are medical conditions, the potential to profit does not necessarily mean that their facts are wrong.

Depression as medical illness

Depression is a medical condition. Studies of the brains and the biology of persons with depression have proven that there are real functional and physical changes that take place when a person is struggling with depression.  Depression, and 7 other mental health conditions, are identified by the World Health Organization as among the top 10 most disabling medical conditions worldwide.

Depression can be treated effectively. Studies have consistently shown that medications can treat depression. It is not a one-drug-suits-all approach. Treatment requires some trial and error. But the same is true for the treatment of hypertension. In addition, much like changes in one’s life circumstances can alter a person’s severity of hypertension, so, too can a change in one’s life circumstances make depression better–or worse! Some psychotherapeutic interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness based cognitive therapy have been shown to improve depression as well.

The controversy that exists about antidepressant medications is not about whether they are effective, but instead about whether the drive for profit has resulted in overarching assertions that these medications are THE ANSWER for EVERYONE.  While the controversy continues, people continue to experience depression at alarming rates, and many people seek help to minimize the impairment that their depression produces. It remains very difficult to analyze the data to determine whether antidepressants will for an individual patient.

So, what is the depressed person to do?

Find a provider that is willing to listen, to ask for details, and to take the time necessary to assess whether an individual patient is responding to the treatment efforts.

Find a provider who is willing to provide education and answers about their treatment decisions, and to include the patient’s preferences in their decision making.

Find a provider who can be flexible and adaptive  in their approach, willing to try something different if a patient is not responding, and who is willing to obtain consultations from other experts when necessary.

Free time is not always a fun time for people with autism. Giving them the power to choose their own leisure activities during free time, however, can boost their enjoyment, as well as improve communication and social skills, according to an international team of researchers.

“For many of us, we look at recreation as a time to spend on activities that are fun and that are designed for our enjoyment,” said John Dattilo, professor of recreation, park and tourism management, Penn State. “But for some people with disabilities, particularly those who have autism, these activities can be a source of frustration, simply because they didn’t have a chance to make their own leisure choices.”

Dattilo said that a group of 20 autistic adults who participated in a yearlong recreation program that offered them a chance to choose activities, scored higher on personality tests that measure social and  communication skills than the control group of 20 autistic adults who were randomly assigned to the program’s waiting list. Participants met for two hours each weekday and could choose among several activities that promoted engagement and interactivity, including games, exercises, crafts and events.

The researchers, who released their findings in the current issue of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, said that after completing the program, participants showed significant improvement at recognizing and labeling emotions. The participants scored about 24 percent higher than the control group in the ability to recognize emotions in a person in a picture. The score of the participants’ ability to label those emotions correctly was 50 percent higher than the control group’s score.

Since people with autism are less willing to interact socially, caregivers are particularly interested in programs that help improve social and communication skills, according to Dattilo, who worked with Domingo Garcia-Villamisar, professor of psychopathology, Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

“The big measure for us in this program was the improvements in social behavior and interaction,” said Dattilo. “The defining quality of people with autism is that they have difficulty in social situations.”

The participants also improved their ability to carry out executive functions, such as setting goals and maintaining attention.

Dattilo said recreation programs that encourage people with autism to make their own leisure choices create a cycle of increasing independence, rather than a pattern of reliance on caregivers to provide recreational activities.

“While people are learning, you can also give them choices,” said Dattilo. “And as they make those choices, they are also learning and are empowered to make even more choices.”

The works of University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci and author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi inspired the researchers to pursue the experiment, Dattilo said. Deci and Csikszentmihalyi emphasize self-determination as a critical component of human fulfillment.