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What you should know about antidepressants

GEHA | July 6, 2021

If you're feeling anxious or sad, medication prescribed by your doctor may help. Be sure to take it as prescribed.

Depression is a common and treatable condition. In the period between August 2020 and February 2021, a study from the Centers for Disease Control revealed the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder increased by more than 5%. The percentage of people reporting an unmet mental health need jumped by 2.5%.

A frequent treatment for depression is to prescribe antidepressants. Researchers believe that the benefits of antidepressants stem from how they affect certain brain circuits and the chemicals (called neurotransmitters) that pass along signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. In various ways, different antidepressants seem to affect how these neurotransmitters behave.

What's the benefit? The basic theory goes like this: maintain higher levels of the neurotransmitters could improve communication between the nerve cells, which can strengthen circuits in the brain that regulate mood.

How antidepressants work

The most prescribed type of antidepressant is called serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These work by stopping the brain from reabsorbing serotonin, a chemical that helps with feelings of well-being and happiness, as well as helps with thinking, memory, sleep, digestion and circulation. When the brain is prevented from reabsorbing this chemical, it leaves more serotonin available in the brain, improving the user’s mood. Some brand-name SSRIs include ZOLOFT® , Prozac® , Celexa® and Lexapro® .

Other types of antidepressants include serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, which increase the level of serotonin and norepinephrine created by the brain and block the brain’s ability to reabsorb the chemicals. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for short-term anxiety management. Tricyclic antidepressants and ketamine are other older types of antidepressants.

All these medicines work to elevate the mood of the user. For reasons doctors do not yet know, some patients respond better to one type of antidepressant than another. In fact, some people need to try several antidepressants before they find the one that works best.

Use antidepressants with care

Whether you take an antidepressant for a long time or are just starting, it is crucial to take them as instructed and not change the dosage without consulting your doctor. You might feel better while taking the antidepressant, assume the depression has lifted and stop taking the medication. The depressive symptoms may return if this happens.

Remember, antidepressants work by altering the chemistry in the brain. They are powerful drugs. When it is time to stop or change a prescription, a doctor will help the patient safely and slowly reduce the dosage. Patients can’t become addicted to antidepressants, but the body needs time to adjust to the changes. Ending medication suddenly can cause withdrawal symptoms.

The most common side effects from antidepressants include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weight gain
  • Diarrhea
  • Drowsiness
  • Sexual problems

Contact a doctor immediately if you have thoughts about suicide or dying, worsening depression or anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, aggressive behavior, mania or other unusual changes in behavior or mood.

Antidepressants are often paired with talk therapy. GEHA medical plan members have access to telebehavioral health services though MDLIVE. Licensed therapists are available by appointment via secure video. You can activate your MDLIVE account online or by calling 888.912.1183.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.TALK (800.273.8255); TTY: 800.799.4TTY (800.799.4889).

“SSRIs and benzodiazepines for general anxiety disorders (GAD).” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18 June 2020.
“Mental health medications.” National Institute of Mental Health, October, 2016.
“Pharmacologic management of adult depression.” American Academy of Family Physicians, 15 March, 2008.
“How different antidepressants work.” WebMD, LLC, 27 June, 2019.
“Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 August, 2021.