Antidepressants work gradually over time to treat depression. How exactly they work, isn’t fully understood, but it’s known that they increase the amount of certain chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters.
Different types of antidepressants include:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
The different types of antidepressants are all equably as good at treating depression. But most people who need to take antidepressants are prescribed a SSRI. This is because they are generally safer and their side-effects are more tolerable than other types of antidepressants. For more information on side-effects, see our section below on the known side-effects of antidepressants.
You may need to take antidepressants if you have moderate or severe depression. If you have moderate or severe depression, going about your daily life as normal can be extremely difficult. You may need antidepressants to help relieve your symptoms and stabilise your condition. You may also need to take antidepressants if you have other psychological disorders such as anxiety.
Other treatments for depression include things like:
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- interpersonal therapy (IPT)
- programmes involving physical activity
These treatments help you to deal with your depression and the things that may be causing your symptoms in the first place. They can be done with help from someone who is trained in these types of therapies, in groups or on a one-to-one basis. There are also some tools and resources that can help you do them on your own. MoodGYM, for example, is a free online resource that offers CBT-based self-help. For more information on these types of therapies, see our Talking therapies for mental health page.
If you have severe depression, you may have these types of treatment alongside treatment with antidepressants. If you have mild or moderate depression, you may have these therapies instead of antidepressants. Depending on the type of depression you have, your doctor will recommend the most suitable treatment for you.
If you find an antidepressant that works for you, you’ll generally need to take it for at least six months after your symptoms have gone away. This will help prevent your depression from coming back. If you’ve had depression that has come back in the past, you may need to continue taking your antidepressants for longer - for at least two years.
What are the known side-effects of antidepressants? What are the known side-effects of antidepressants?
All antidepressants have side-effects. These are the unwanted effects you may get after taking your medicine. Antidepressants can affect your sex life, initially make you feel sick, and for a short while after you start taking them, make you feel slightly worse. Many of their side-effects are temporary and wear off after one to two weeks. But when it comes to side-effects, some antidepressants are better than others.
If you need to take antidepressants, it’s likely that you’ll be prescribed a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This is because their side-effects are more tolerable than other types of antidepressants.
Side-effects of SSRIs include:
- feeling sick
- tummy pain
- feeling dizzy
- feeling anxious
- feeling agitated
- having trouble sleeping
Other types of antidepressants are also associated with potential side-effects. If you’re prescribed one, ask your doctor for more information.
If you’ve got side-effects from the antidepressant you’re taking, talk to your GP. Don’t be tempted to miss doses or stop taking them completely. If you do, you may get discontinuation symptoms. These are side-effects you may get if you stop taking your antidepressant and include things like feeling dizzy, nauseous or vomiting. They’re often mild and go by themself, but can be quite severe if you stop taking your medicine suddenly. If you want to stop taking your antidepressants, talk to your doctor first. They may help you reduce your dose slowly, over a period of weeks, to prevent these side-effects.
- Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. www.medicinescomplete.com, accessed February 2016
- Depression in adults: recognition and management. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), October 2009
- Joint Formulary Committee. British National Formulary (online) London: BMJ Group and Pharmaceutical Press. www.medicinescomplete.com, accessed February 2016
- Neurotransmission. The Merck Manuals. www.merckmanuals.com, published December 2009
- Depression medication. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, reviewed January 2016
- Generalised anxiety disorder. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. www.cks.nice.org.uk, reviewed October 2015
- Depression: treatment and management. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, reviewed 2016
- Depression. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, revised October 2015
- Map of Medicine. Depression in adults. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2015 (Issue 5)
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): use and safety. Medicine & Healthcare Products Regulation Agency. www.gov.uk, published December 2014
- Personal Communication reference. Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner, 27 February 2016
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Peer reviewed by Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
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