Okay, so unless you have been under a rock, or unless you purposely close your eyes whilst walking past the newspaper stand or switch the news off every time you hear it, you can’t fail to have heard the news that ‘ANTIDEPRESSANTS DO WORK!!!!’
It has set my phone going crazy either from past clients of mine that have felt outraged of the further promotion of drugs for depression, or from sceptics saying, “I told you so!” but hear me out. If you read beyond the headlines, then you would have come to realise that this statement is not quite as simple as it sounds.
The first thing to note is that the study, which was carried out in America over six years using 116, 477 people, was only comparing the effects of antidepressants in comparison to placebo effect (fake pills with no drugs in them whatsoever) and other types of medication during an eight week period. The overall outcome was that antidepressants do work better than placebo and that some antidepressants are better than others.
Not new news…
The thing is, we already knew this! The fact that antidepressants have an impact is no surprise at all really. After all, they add a chemical called serotonin to our system which is what the brain will produces to make us feel good. The problem comes when people start thinking that antidepressants are the best way to overcome their depression and low mood. What the study DOESN’T do is talk about antidepressants as a CURE for depression.
Okay – so we know that they can make us feel better for a time, but then what? If they don’t actually cure depression, then why were 64.7 million prescriptions for antidepressants made in the UK in 2016? This number is growing year on year and there are studies to show that an increasing number of under 16 year olds are now being prescribed antidepressants too! What happens to those people in 2017 and 2018? Are they still taking them?
The study only looked at the short-term effects of the pills over eight weeks and therefore might not apply to long term use. They may help someone to manage their emotions for a brief time until a situation they believe is causing the issues improves (and therefore the way they feel about it improves) but they do not make depression go away.
Why aren’t they a cure?
We are routinely told that depression is something that happens TO you. Some imbalance in our brain or something that runs in the family/is genetic, however, for most people suffering with depression, this simply is not true. The problem with having this label attached to our symptoms is that it instantly makes us feel powerless and that something is happening to us that we have no control over.
So why are we told this? Well, Johann Hari, author of ‘Lost Connections’ has been exploring the science and evidence behind how depression is viewed and dealt with. The first thing that it is important to appreciate is that most GPs are not mental health experts, they deal with people’s struggles every day, but a doctor’s role is to identify and fix physical symptoms. Now, I’m not suggesting that doctors know nothing about mental health, but they identify depression though a generic nine point checklist which can then allow them to either medicate or refer, which is what they have been trained to use. In order to be ‘diagnosed’ with depression you must be suffering with five or more of the symptoms. As Johann Hari points out, this is all well and good, but it doesn’t consider the circumstances surrounding those symptoms. If someone’s husband has died a few days ago then of course they are likely to be feeling in a low mood, not sleeping well etc etc…. does this mean that they are depressed? According to the checklist…. Yes!
The fact is this. For most people suffering with depression, it is not something that has not happened to them. It is something that they have created over time by developing unhelpful beliefs and negative thinking styles that have spiralled into further unhelpful beliefs and negative thinking styles. Eventually it becomes such a habitual way of living and thinking that there seems to be no way to stop, it feels out of your control. It is not something that is wrong with your brain, but it is everything to do with your perspective, beliefs and thoughts. Once you are able to uncover these unhelpful beliefs and thinking styles and you are able to challenge them and address them, you will not feel depressed any more.
So why do so many people still struggle?
The fact of the matter is that people continue to struggle because they do not realise that they can do something about it. Quite often they are told that they cannot, or they feel like there is very little point even trying because it is something that is ‘wrong with them’. They feel powerless. They feel that their feelings and emotions are out of control and they will continue to go down the slide of thinking and feeling that way. This is especially true when even medical professionals are telling them there is very little that they can do other than give them medication.
I know how easy depression can be to overcome, I see it every week in my clinic. I have worked with people who have been on medication for years, they have been unable to go to work, they have been diagnosed by a doctor as being ‘clinically depressed’. Yet they have completely overcome their depression in just a few short weeks, gone back to work and stopped taking their pills. More than that, they live their life in a way they didn’t imagine they could simply because they learnt how to take control of their thoughts and emotions. Here are three useful tips that could help you or a loved one who is struggling with depression:
Identify unhelpful beliefs – all of our thoughts come from beliefs that we hold about the world around us. We collect evidence based entirely on our beliefs and only look for evidence that backs up our beliefs. So, if for example you hold the belief that ‘no one likes me’ then as you go about your day to day life, you will only notice things that prove you right. The person that you think was looking at you funny, the joke that you took personally. You will not notice ALL of the other masses of evidence that would absolutely prove you wrong. I mean why would you!? If you did that you wouldn’t be able to believe it anymore! So, find an unhelpful belief, turn it round to be a helpful one ‘people DO like me’ and start hunting for new evidence!
Stop be so unkind to yourself! – let me ask you this…… If you had a friend that spoke to you the way that you spoke to yourself, would you still be their friend? If the answer is an uncomfortable ‘no’ then ask yourself why you allow it! Listen to that inner voice, every time you say something unkind to yourself, stop. Now say something nice about yourself, even if it’s something small (“I finished that thing that has been on my to do list for weeks!”). It’s likely to feel very alien to start with because you are so used to being horrid instead, keep at it!
Mind your language – I don’t mean swearing (as such). I mean watch out for being over dramatic or negative “Today was horrendous! Was it? Really? This kind of catastrophising is really unhelpful to our beliefs. “I just CAN’T COPE with this weather!” Is that true? Or do you just not really like it and have to make a little extra effort? Either way, by changing your language you can help to change your outlook and beliefs.
The bottom line
If you or someone you love is suffering with depression or has been prescribed antidepressants then there is a way to overcome it in a much more helpful, long lasting and powerful way. Anti-depressants to have their place in helping people to overcome those initial overwhelming feelings that are linked to depression, but they are not a long-term answer. If you want a long-term answer and you want to take back control, then please get in touch or go to www.thrivinginlife.co.uk to find out more.
If you would like to look at research relating to this blog, please see:
Kelly, R. (2010). The Thrive Programme. Cambridge: Rob Kelly Publishing
Hari, J. (2018). Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. London: Bloomsbury Circus
Hari, J. (2018). Is everything you think you know about depression wrong? . Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/07/is-everything-you-think-you-know-about-depression-wrong-johann-hari-lost-connections. Last accessed 1st March 2018.
Campbell, D. (2017). NHS prescribed record number of antidepressants last year . Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/29/nhs-prescribed-record-number-of-antidepressants-last-year. Last accessed 1st March 2018.