Antidepressant medications are drugs designed toimprovemoods. Although they are used primarily in the treatment of depression, they are also effective for patients who suffer from anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Antidepressants work by influencing the production and reuptake of neurotransmitters that relate to emotion, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Although exactly why they work is not yet known, as the amount of the neurotransmitters in the CNS is increased through the action of the drugs, the person often experiences less depression.
The original antidepressants were the tricyclicantidepressants, with the brand names of Tofranil and Elavil, and the monamineoxidaseinhibitors (MAOIs). These medications work by increasing the amount of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine at the synapses, but they also have severe side effects including potential increases in blood pressure and the need to follow particular diets.
The antidepressants most prescribed today are the selectiveserotonin reuptakeinhibitors (SSRIs), including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, which are designed to selectively block the reuptake of serotonin at the synapse, thereby leaving more serotonin available in the CNS. SSRIs are safer and have fewer side effects than the tricyclics or the MAOIs (Fraser, 2000; Hollon, Thase, & Markowitz, 2002). 1 SSRIs are effective, but patients taking them often suffer a variety of sometimes unpleasant side effects, including dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, headache, agitation, drowsiness, as well as a reduction in sexual enjoyment.
Recently, there has been concern that SSRIs may increase the risk of suicide among teens and young adults, probably because when the medications begin working they give patients more energy, which may lead them to commit the suicide that they had been planning but lacked the energy to go through with. This concern has led the FDA to put a warning label on SSRI medications and has led doctors to be more selective about prescribing antidepressants to this age group (Healy & Whitaker, 2003; Simon, 2006; Simon, Savarino, Operskalski, & Wang, 2006). 2
Because the effects of antidepressants may take weeks or even months to develop, doctors usually work with each patient to determine which medications are most effective, and may frequently change medications over the course of therapy. In some cases other types of antidepressants may be used instead of or in addition to the SSRIs. These medications also work by blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Brand names of these medications include Effexor a nd Wellbutrin.
Patients who are suffering from bipolar disorder are not helped by the SSRIs or other antidepressants because their disorder also involves the experience of overly positive moods. Treatment is more complicated for these patients, often involving a combination of antipsychotics and antidepressants along with mood stabilizing medications(McElroy & Keck, 2000). 3 The most well-known mood stabilizer, lithium carbonate (or “lithium”), was approved by the FDA in the 1970s for treating both manic and depressive episodes, and it has proven very effective. Anticonvulsant medications can also be used as mood stabilizers. Another drug, Depakote, has also proven very effective, and some bipolar patients may do better with it than with lithium (Kowatch et al., 2000). 4
People who take lithium must have regular blood tests to be sure that the levels of the drug are in the appropriate range. Potential negative side effects of lithium are loss of coordination, slurred speech, frequent urination, and excessive thirst. Though side effects often cause patients to stop taking their medication, it is important that treatment be c ontinuous, rather than intermittent. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but drug therapy does help many people.