Experiences of antidepressants

Antidepressants: feelings about using medication for depression

The people we interviewed expressed a wide range of feelings about using antidepressants. At one end of the spectrum some said they currently had no qualms about using antidepressants. Olivia Y reflected ‘I’m all for medication, I mean if I’ve got a headache I’ll take a paracetamol... if I’m feeling some sort of pain mentally or physically then yes, I’ll take it’ although when she was first prescribed Prozac (fluoxetine) as a teenager she had not wanted to take it. 
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Whilst some saw taking an antidepressant as a short term measure to help get them back on track, others felt frustrated trying to find one that worked, or had accepted that they would continue taking them for the foreseeable future. Caroline was surprised to be asked if she had any worries about taking an antidepressant, and is simply glad to have found something that keeps her mood stable. ‘I would see myself taking it indefinitely and I hope that they don’t suddenly announce that they don’t give it to over 70’s or whatever.’ Lou had a bad reaction to Seroxat (paroxetine) when she was younger and said she hadn’t wanted to ever take antidepressants again, but later tried a different one which worked for her, and so now felt very positive about the benefits. ‘My life’s been completely enriched... by my decision to take antidepressants... I don’t think the changes I made would have been possible without that initial stepping stone of taking them’.
Some people felt convinced by the explanation that depression may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and felt it made sense to take medication to rectify the problem. Although people argued that it was no different to taking medicines for other health conditions such as the use of insulin by people with diabetes, Janet reflected on the way antidepressants are often seen in a different light to other treatments. ‘I don’t put my hands up in horror with psychiatric drugs… there’s a lot of people turning against them... they wouldn’t have the same attitude towards insulin or other drugs that were lifesaving’.
People worried about becoming dependent on antidepressants. At first Melanie had reservations about taking them in case she got ‘hooked’ but once she adjusted her antidepressant and began feeling some positive benefits she saw it as a short term measure to get her to a point of managing without them. ‘I am feeling the benefits of the medication now so I’m quite happy to continue with it and hopefully I would get to a point where I think do I really need it anymore and then sort of, you know, come off it gradually’. Most people hoped that they could stop taking them at some point. 
Whilst some people said they had reached a point where they felt well enough to stop taking their antidepressant, others accepted that they may need to take one ‘for life’. Although some felt comfortable with the decision to continue taking an antidepressant indefinitely, others found it difficult to contemplate the prospect. Some people took what they called a ‘maintenance dose’ in order to keep their mood level or as a preventative measure. They worried that if they stopped the depression could return and it felt ‘safer’ to keep taking it than risk further depressive episodes. Clare had felt ‘very resistant... I didn’t want them’ when she first started taking antidepressants, but over the years has recognised ‘I can be the ‘me’ I want to be’ by taking an antidepressant regularly. Even so, she said in an ideal world she’d rather not have to take them. Stuart still gets periods when he’s depressed even though he takes an antidepressant as a preventative measure. 
Sometimes people questioned whether the antidepressant itself kept them stable or if it was the ‘placebo effect’ and that it was difficult to know if it really helped them or not. It can be difficult to separate out the effects of the medicine, from other things, or to know how much improvements in mood could be attributed to the antidepressants. 
Typically people had felt that antidepressants could help but that it was also important to ‘get to the route of problems’ using other strategies such as talking therapy or making lifestyle changes.
(See ‘Expectations about taking antidepressants’, ‘Talking therapies and antidepressants’ and 'Other strategies for dealing with depression').
Often though, even where positive benefits were apparent, people had mixed feelings about using them. People talked about the stigma around mental health more generally, and the use of antidepressants, reflecting the view that taking something ‘for the mind’ can have negative connotations. They worried they might be perceived by others as ‘mad’ or ‘mental’. Gerry had these concerns when an antidepressant was suggested by the doctor. ‘I found it quite scary I’ve never been on prescription drugs before so, you know, I think for me it was like... there was a bit of stigma’. Some people said they would not tell their employer that they were taking an antidepressant, or be open about it with friends or work colleagues. Both Thomas and Gerry had invented explanations for absences from work for appointments to see the GP or psychiatrist rather than give the real reason. (See 'Antidepressants and work' and ‘Antidepressants: telling family and friends’).
Many people have strong views on the idea of taking any medicines, for whatever reason. Stephen said he never usually took anything. ‘I’ve never liked taking tablets, I mean if I’ve hurt myself I don’t like to take a painkiller... it’s just me I just don’t tend to like taking these things’. Others disliked the idea of being dependent on a chemical substance to keep their mood level. Taking psychiatric medicines that ‘mess with the mind’ was perceived particularly negatively. Steve thought that some people resisted taking antidepressants because they proved ‘that something’s wrong and a lot of people don’t like to admit that something’s wrong’. Stuart felt ‘ashamed’ when he first started taking antidepressants after a breakdown, and had not told his employer. ‘I never declared it when I worked in industry because of the macho culture and the stigma.’ Emma felt that men were more inclined to see using antidepressants as a sign of weakness. 
When Thomas was first prescribed an antidepressant he said he felt as though his depression was ‘official’, as though he had ‘surrendered’. Seeing it written in his medical notes felt ‘almost like having a criminal record’. It had affected the way he felt about himself, that now he was someone who was ‘mentally ill’. People said they would prefer to ‘manage’ without them, wanting to come off them as soon as possible, or that it was important to them for there to be ‘an end in sight’. They talked about preferring to be ‘in control’ of their own emotions and saw antidepressants as a temporary ‘crutch’ to lean on rather than a permanent solution. Simon had felt it was taking the ‘lazy’ option when he was first prescribed an antidepressant, and said it felt like avoiding responsibility for his own wellbeing. Some saw taking antidepressant as a sign of weakness or that taking one signified either to themselves or to others that they were a ‘failure’. 
Some people felt unhappy about the way the antidepressant made them feel, even if it had alleviated some of their symptoms. Commonly people said they stopped feeling like ‘me’ as though they lost a part of their self-identity when they took it. Rachel struggled constantly with feeling numb and detached. Colette and Sonia both said they had been on and off their antidepressants for so long ‘I don’t actually know who ‘me’ is any more’. Thomas had a very negative view of antidepressants and had stopped taking them against the doctor’s advice as he really disliked the way they made him feel. ‘I don’t want to be made into someone else by these pills. I want to be ‘me’’. Colette recalled a conversation she had with a friend who had asked her for advice... ‘she was ashamed to be taking them because she wasn’t strong, she felt she shouldn’t be taking them... I think it is still a stigma being on antidepressants... [people think] you’re crazy or you’re going to lose control or something… I suppose if we talk about it then it becomes less of a stigma’.
Several people worried about long term effects and had concerns that taking antidepressants could be damaging their health in ways that weren’t evident on the surface, or might become apparent in the future. Dina felt uncomfortable about what she called the ‘medicalisation of distress’ and suggested that there is a tendency to use medicines in place of other potentially more helpful alternatives or to ‘over medicate’. 
Taking antidepressants can be costly. Rachel is on a low income and buys a pre-payment certificate to make paying for her prescriptions cheaper, but said ‘there have been times in my life when finding … the spare money for the three months cover can be really difficult’. Andrew felt concerned not to be a burden to society by needing to be prescribed antidepressants. ‘I’m worried about becoming an expensive burden to the community because really I’m 50 I’m generally in good health, you know, I’m working and I think oh I don’t want to be a drain’. 

Last reviewed June 2016.
​Last updated June 2016.


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