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

“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.