Antidepressants: What Are They, Usages, And Side Effects

Antidepressants: What are they used for, definition, risks, and benefits

We all have heard about antidepressants, and by definition, we may have known what they are primarily used for. Whether you’re seeking insight into your personal experiences, aiming to offer support to someone close, or simply eager to broaden your knowledge, grasping the nuances of mental health and the function of antidepressants is immensely beneficial. Mental health encompasses a vast and intricate array of topics, yet by deconstructing it, we can all attain a more profound comprehension. 

Antidepressants are primarily prescribed to treat major depressive disorders, offering relief from persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest in life. Beyond depression, they are also utilised to manage a range of anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, in some instances, chronic pain conditions. 

Let’s dive deeper into what exactly antidepressants are, and why they have been prescribed to alleviate several mental health conditions.  

What Are Antidepressants?

Scientifically, antidepressants are a class of drugs designed to alleviate symptoms of depressive disorders and other mental health conditions. They work by modifying the chemistry of the brain, particularly influencing the activity of neurotransmitters—chemical messengers responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. 

These medications aim to restore the altered balance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine, which play crucial roles in regulating mood, emotion, and behaviour. 

There are several types of antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), among others, each with a unique mechanism of action. The choice of antidepressants and the duration of treatment depend on the individual’s symptoms, their severity, previous responses to treatment, and, in some cases, personal preference. While effective for many, antidepressants can have side effects, and their use must be closely monitored by a healthcare professional to ensure the best possible outcome for the patient.

When Were Antidepressants First Prescribed?

Antidepressants were first prescribed in the late 1950s, with the discovery and introduction of imipramine. This discovery was largely accidental, stemming from research into antihistamines and related compounds for their potential use as sedatives or anaesthetics

Imipramine was found to have significant effects in alleviating depressive symptoms. Dr. Roland Kuhn, a Swiss psychiatrist, was instrumental in recognising its therapeutic potential for depression after observing improvements in patients. He published his findings in 1957, marking the official recognition of the first antidepressant. 

While specific statistics and numbers regarding its initial use are not detailed, the significance of this discovery cannot be overstated, as it paved the way for the development of a wide range of antidepressants that followed. These developments have had a profound impact on the treatment of depression and other mental health conditions, offering relief to millions worldwide.

How Do Antidepressants Alleviate Mental Health Conditions?

Antidepressants are designed to treat symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions by altering the chemical balance within the brain, particularly affecting neurotransmitters like noradrenaline and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting messages between nerve cells in the brain and play a crucial role in regulating mood. 

By enhancing the activity of these brain chemicals or prolonging their action, antidepressants can help lift one’s mood. However, it’s important to note that while antidepressants can be effective in alleviating symptoms, they do not necessarily address the underlying causes of mental health issues. Therefore, doctors often recommend combining them with talking therapies to tackle the root causes of mental health problems.

How Different Types Of Antidepressants Help With Alleviations?

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants, function by blocking the reuptake (absorption) of serotonin into the neuron that released it, thereby increasing serotonin levels in the brain’s synaptic clefts. This increase helps to enhance mood and reduce symptoms of depression.

Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs) and Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) are older classes of antidepressants. TCAs block the reuptake of serotonin, while MAOIs prevent the breakdown of these neurotransmitters, increasing their availability in the brain. However, due to their side effects and dietary restrictions, particularly with MAOIs, they are generally prescribed less frequently than SSRIs.

It’s also critical to understand that the effectiveness of antidepressants can vary, with some individuals responding better to certain types than others. Additionally, there’s no definitive scientific evidence linking depression solely to a chemical imbalance that can be corrected by these medications. 

Antidepressants are effective for some people in Australia, with studies indicating varying response rates. They are most effective for those experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of depression. The effectiveness of antidepressants, including SSRIs and SNRIs, is supported by research, but their impact can differ among individuals. 

Side effects of antidepressants sexual dysfunction, nausea, weight changes, heart rate, sleep disturbances, neurological effects

What Are The Known Side Effects Of Antidepressants?

Antidepressants can have various bodily side effects, scientifically explained by their interaction with neurotransmitters beyond their target areas. Common side effects include:

  • gastrointestinal disturbances (e.g., nausea, constipation)
  • weight changes
  • sexual dysfunction
  • cardiovascular effects (like heart rate changes)
  • sleep disturbances
  • neurological effects (such as dizziness or tremors). 


These side effects are due to the medication’s impact on serotonin and other neurotransmitters, which play roles in mood regulation as well as other bodily functions. 

There’s also a risk of increased suicidal thoughts, particularly in young adults and children. Long-term use can lead to dependency or withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. It’s crucial to discuss these risks with a healthcare professional to ensure the benefits outweigh potential downsides.

With known risks? Are there any alternative treatments that are currently being used to prescribe for mental health conditions? 

alternative treatments to antidepressants: medical cannabis, CBT, mindfulness-based stress reduction and EMDR

Alternative Treatment Options For Managing Your Mental Health

Alternative treatments to antidepressants for managing mental health conditions include:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps with depression and PTSD by teaching individuals to recognise and change negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to their conditions. It equips them with coping strategies and problem-solving skills, aiming to alter the underlying thoughts contributing to depression and PTSD. 

Like antidepressants, CBT works to improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress, offering a psychological approach to treatment that can sometimes match the efficacy of medication in managing symptoms.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)

MBSR can also be another alternative treatment for conditions that are currently treated by antidepressants, as they help by teaching individuals to focus on the present moment in a non-judgmental manner. This practice can reduce symptoms by helping individuals break the cycle of negative thoughts and emotional reactions that exacerbate these conditions. 

MBSR promotes relaxation and increases awareness of body and mind, which can lead to improved mood and anxiety levels, offering benefits similar to antidepressants but without the pharmacological side effects.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Through guided eye movements, EMDR helps to process and integrate traumatic experiences, reducing their impact. As an alternative to antidepressants, EMDR can offer relief from PTSD and depression symptoms linked to trauma, potentially improving emotional well-being without the medication’s side effects.

This treatment involves recalling traumatic events while receiving bilateral sensory input, such as side-to-side eye movements, which facilitates reducing the emotional impact of these memories. This technique can alleviate symptoms similarly to antidepressants by diminishing the distress linked to traumatic memories, thus improving emotional well-being without the need for medication.

Medical Cannabis

Cannabidiol (CBD), a component of medical cannabis, may help with depression and PTSD by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system to modulate mood and anxiety levels, offering potential therapeutic effects similar to antidepressants. It’s thought to promote neurogenesis and enhance serotonin receptor activity, akin to how some antidepressants work. However, it’s crucial to consult healthcare professionals for personalised advice and consider legal and medical guidelines in your area.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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