Do Antidepressants Work?

Doctor with prescription medication

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Does depression medication work? If you have been diagnosed with depression or are experiencing depressive symptoms, it is normal to wonder if antidepressants work or if they can even cure your condition.

If you're wondering whether antidepressants will cure you in the same way that an antibiotic cures an infection, the answer is no; they do not eradicate the underlying causes of depression. While antidepressants can alter neurotransmitter levels and function in the brain, they don't cause permanent changes in brain structure or chemistry.

How Antidepressants Work

Antidepressants target one or more of the neurotransmitters that are believed to be involved in regulating mood. Important neurotransmitters in the brain that are affected by antidepressants include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

How it affects neurotransmitters can vary from one antidepressant to the next. Some help the brain use neurotransmitters more effectively, some increase neurotransmitter levels, and others impact neurotransmitter receptors.

By affecting these neurotransmitters, antidepressants allow a greater quantity of these neurotransmitters to remain available within the brain. The goal of this is to make up for any deficiencies that might be causing a person's depression symptoms.

So do antidepressants work as a permanent cure for depression? No, they do not, and the reason for this lies in how they work. While they cause changes in brain chemistry, this effect is only temporary. When you stop taking the antidepressant, your brain chemistry will return to its previous state.

While the effects are not permanent, this does not mean that antidepressants don't work or are not effective in the treatment of depression. A 2018 review published in The Lancet found that all antidepressants included in the review were more effective than a placebo for major depressive disorder.

Antidepressants and Long-Term Effects

However, If what you really want to know is whether they are capable of providing long-term relief from the symptoms of depression, then the answer is yes. Antidepressants do appear to be able to provide lasting benefits to those who take them.

In a 2011 Journal of Psychiatric Research article, it was reported that depressed adults who used antidepressants were three times less likely than their unmedicated counterparts to still be depressed after eight years.

Unfortunately, when people start to feel better, they often take this as a sign that they have been cured and they stop taking their medication on their own, which can cause serious problems. Not only are they at risk of having their depression return, or even become worse, they are also at risk for developing symptoms such as muscle aches, fatigue, and nausea as a result of discontinuation syndrome.

Tips for Taking Antidepressants

To avoid these problems and get the best results from an antidepressant, consider these tips:

  • Give your medication enough time to work before you give up on it. Generally, it takes anywhere from two to eight weeks for an antidepressant to exert its full effects.
  • Take your antidepressant exactly as your doctor has prescribed. Not taking your full dose or skipping doses can create problems and the medication won't work as well as it could.
  • Don't stop your medication without consulting your doctor. Your doctor will be able to advise you about whether it's a good idea to stop taking your medication. They can also help address any problems that you might be having with it, such as unpleasant side effects. Finally, they will be able to help you avoid any potential problems, such as discontinuation syndrome or worsening depression.
  • Don't give up if the first medication that you try doesn't help. Different antidepressants work in slightly different ways and you may need to try a few different medications in order to get the right one for you.
  • Don't stop taking your antidepressant when you start feeling better. Quitting too soon could lead to a return of your depression. Your doctor will help you determine when, and if, quitting your antidepressant is advisable.

How does depression medication work in the long term? Does this all mean that you must take an antidepressant for the rest of your life? Not necessarily. Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether you will need to take an antidepressant indefinitely is your risk for depression relapse.

If this is your first depressive episode, then your doctor may recommend that you stay on your medication for four to nine months (sometimes up to a year) and then gradually taper off it. If you've had two episodes of depression, a familial history of depression, or a particularly ​severe depressive episode, your doctor might recommend that you remain on your antidepressant long-term.

If you've had three or more depressive episodes, your doctor will likely want you to remain on antidepressants because you are 95% more likely to have a relapse within two years.

Long-term Use of Antidepressants

Fortunately, more and more research is being done on the long-term use of antidepressants and how they impact your health. Like all medications, SSRIs have the potential for side effects such as weight change, sleep changes, and sexual side effects.

Despite potential side effects, there are many positives of taking an antidepressant long-term including feeling less depressed and having an overall better quality of life. However, you may need to try several drugs before finding the best one for you.

Whether you take antidepressants for the rest of your life is a decision best made between you and your doctor or mental healthcare provider. Treating depression is a balancing act and, together, you'll need to weigh the good against the bad and decide the right plan for your overall health.

A Word From Verywell

So do antidepressants work? Antidepressants are not only effective, they are considered a first-line treatment for moderate to severe depression.

However, other treatments can be helpful and many people find it particularly effective to take depression medication in conjunction with psychotherapy. If you have symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor about which treatments might work best for you.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cipriani A, Furukawa TA, Salanti G, et al. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. The Lancet. 2018;391(10128):1357-1366. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32802-7

  3. Colman I, Zeng Y, Ataullahjan A, Senthilselvan A, Patten SB. The association between antidepressant use and depression eight years later: A national cohort study. J Psychiatr Res. 2011;45(8): doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.02.001

  4. Berwian IM, Walter H, Seifritz E, Huys QJ. Predicting relapse after antidepressant withdrawal - a systematic review. Psychol Med. 2017;47(3):426-437. doi:10.1017/S0033291716002580

  5. Blier P, Keller MB, Pollack MH, Thase ME, Zajecka JM, Dunner DL. Preventing recurrent depression: Long-term treatment for major depressive disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2007;68(3):e06.

  6. Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Clinical practice review for major depressive disorder.

Additional Reading

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.