Kelly Brendel: Experiences of antidepressants—everyone has a story to tell

kelly“After that life changed dramatically.” “I felt completely flattened, like I’d been hit by a truck.” “It was a kind of cushion from all the horrible feelings.” “I felt like a zombie. I felt like almost stoned.” These are just some of the snatches of experience that provide a glimpse into what life on antidepressants can be like. Taken from Healthtalkonline’s recently launched Experiences of antidepressants, these excerpts are from video interviews with 36 people who shared their own personal stories of antidepressant use to create an information resource for patients, health professionals, and the general public.

At the launch of this new section to the site, Claire Anderson, of the University of Nottingham, said that she was prompted to begin this project in a bid to better understand the reasons behind non-adherence in patients prescribed antidepressants. So, after securing project funding, Oxford University researcher Susan Kirkpatrick travelled across the UK interviewing people of various ages and backgrounds to hear their stories and shape them into a tool that could support others.

In 2012, a total of 50 167 201 prescriptions were dispensed in the UK for all types of antidepressants—a 7.5% increase from 2011’s figures. And this trend is not restricted to just the UK, with a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development remarking that “the consumption of antidepressants has also increased significantly in most OECD countries between 2000 and 2011.” However, the myriad experiences of the patients who take these antidepressants are harder to crunch into a statistic. Drug labels may have a list of side effects that impassively cover anything from insomnia and nausea to confusion and disorientation, but living through these side effects is a different matter.

Now that the first step many patients take to understanding their condition is to turn online, the people behind this web resource hope that patients will benefit from others’ shared experiences. Although, that’s not to say that all the accounts are alike in the series of interviews. Some people recall their almost immediate relief upon feeling the benefits of medication (although conceding the possibility of placebo effect), while others describe struggling through a process of trial and error on different drugs as a journey that stretched out over years of their lives. Some were overwhelmed with the flood of side effects, while others found them perfectly manageable in the context of the benefits they were offsetting.

It’s interesting to hear how many of the interviewees stress the importance of their doctor’s role in shaping their attitude to taking antidepressants, although the interactions described vary wildly. Some felt unconvinced and disheartened by their doctor’s quick and perfunctory prescription of an antidepressant, while others valued the extra time their doctor spent to discuss drug options, side effects, and the alternative/additional option of therapy. As one interviewee says:  “I was actually more relieved from the talk, rather than having the tablets.”

Navigating this journey requires patience from both patient and health professional, but Kirkpatrick announced at the launch her hope that this particular resource would help everyone negotiate the overload of information available. Some of the interviewees mentioned that they had used “NHS style official websites,” but found them limited in the details they could offer on the more everyday experiences of taking antidepressants. How to talk about taking an antidepressant in the workplace or socialise with friends, for example, are not part of the set clinical stepping stones of diagnosis, drug prescription, effects, and recovery, but they are still important to patients.

At the launch, Kirkpatrick explained how she used the video interviews to create guidance for every stage of patients’ journeys from first consulting a doctor to recovery. However much experiences differed, one unifying thread among the people interviewed was expressing the comfort received from knowing “that there’s other people going through it,” and this resource definitely provides that.

Kelly Brendel is an assistant web editor, BMJ.

  • casandra66

    This is a heartening website! I have been on anti-depressants – or ‘Happy Pills’ as I call them since my mother died suddenly five years ago and my family disowned me immediately I know not why. Added to that long term debilitating illness (Sjogren’s Syndrome it took a decade to decide) and financial hardship and I really ought to have been taking them sooner! I didn’t because I a)did not want to take pills and b)did not want to have to declare this on job applications. It was only when my mother died and I accepted that I would never be employed again that I asked for help.
    Of course my GP listened kindly and put me on a lowish dose of his favourite. He did warn me that the effects took many weeks to develop and that they must also be changed/amended progressively not suddenly. Also they can give a helping hand – a buffer – but do not help you address/resolve the issues. So two years I waited for Psychotherapy and that was very good! I learnt Mindfulness – a very useful technique.
    But I have some general observations. I am now on my fourth anti-depressant and it suits me way better than the previous ones. I had to switch from the second because I was on a high dose and that was contraindicated by research. It is commonsense really that different people are suited to different drugs – yet most GPs simply prescribe their usual at a medium dose, give the warning to avoid sudden change and, er, leave it for three months or more. Furthermore patients wrongly assume that they have been prescribed just the right drug at the right dose first time round! If doctors explained that it was a question of finding the best one for them as an individual and then the optimum dose and that it was a long process it would help in many ways – more regular and meaningful review appointments, more variation in the dose to find its optimum level and assessment/awareness of side effects. surely a win win for all concerned?

  • Paul Light

    The pain and the struggles are real. Things have to change the way GP’s are prescribing this medication. Today with technology there are DNA testing that can be done to test you DNA and find the right medications for you, that’s if you even need them. I went on Paxil and Valium which was prescribed to me by my GP which as some point my mind was no longer mine. I have a very hard time with short term memories, and when I stated to take a Valium at night when I ‘thought’ was was having amenity, it was actually manic depression. By taking the Valium during the manic, my memory blacked out, spending over a two month period over $100,000 on my credit cards! Now I’m getting off the pill and Valium but the damage has been done. I’ve reported the side effects to FDA and I know have a petition to limit the powers of the GP to prescribing this meds. This should be something for Psychiatrists to prescribe who know the inner working of our mind. I would also like to bring forward the DNA testing that is out there and make that something that Psychiatrists should give to all their clients so we can hopefully limit the evil side effects from these meds.

    If you agree to this, please visit the link below and sign the petition, as well as, share it and pass it on. Change is needed!

    https://www.change.org/p/u-s-house-of-representatives-change-the-way-antidepressants-are-prescribed?recruiter=508291&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=share_for_starters_page

    Thank you!