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Antidepressant Abuse and Addiction

Antidepressants are prescribed to treat symptoms of depression, but they can cause more problems than they solve if misused.  Although antidepressants are not considered highly addictive, a person can develop a dependency on the drug.  Many kinds of antidepressants are sold today, and most of them work by increasing serotonin levels to elevate or stabilize mood.  

“The intent behind prescribing antidepressants is to help relieve symptoms of anxiety, sadness, apathy, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Many people take antidepressants for at least one year or more.”

Unfortunately, physicians misdiagnose almost two-thirds of their patients as having depression.  As a result, unnecessary prescriptions are written creating a shocking total of 37 million people using the drugs today.

What Causes Depression?

To comprehend the prevalence of antidepressant use in America, we need to understand the different forms of depression.  

Almost everyone feels sad or down at times.  But, when they feel this way most of the time, they could be diagnosed as having clinical depression.  

“Clinical depression ranges from mild episodes of sadness to severe or persistent depressive states.  It is also known as major depressive disorder (MDD).”

Symptoms of clinical depression can include:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, emptiness, and tearfulness.
  • Lack of energy, tiredness, small tasks require extra effort to complete.
  • Anxiety, agitation, restlessness.
  • Loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Changes in appetite and weight.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, fixated on self-blame.
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, poor memory.
  • Unexplained aches and pains.
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much.
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts.

Depression is often the result of a traumatic event or some type of chemical change in the brain.  The symptoms can adversely affect all aspects of a person’s life including relationships, work performance, and social activities.  

Typically, individuals experiencing the above symptoms undergo a combination of treatment approaches that include antidepressants and counseling.

What are Antidepressants?

Antidepressants work by balancing serotonin levels in the brain.  As a naturally occurring chemical, serotonin regulates mood, including feelings of well-being and happiness.  Antidepressants help correct the chemical imbalances in the brain to improve mood and behavior.  

The most frequently prescribed antidepressants are:  

  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

They are prescribed to treat a range of disorders such as:

  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder
  • Situational Depression
  • Psychotic Depression
  • Postpartum Depression
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
  • Treatment-Resistant Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

The 5 categories of antidepressants are:

  1. SNRIs (serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors)
  2. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  3. TCAs (tricyclic antidepressants)
  4. MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors)   
  5. NASSAs (noradrenaline and specific serotonergic antidepressants)

Unlike other prescription drugs, antidepressants do not produce a euphoric effect. For this reason, they are not considered addictive.  Because the effects of the drug aren’t felt right away, some people increase their dosage thinking the drug isn’t working.  As a result, they increase their chance of developing a tolerance to the drug.

Some people deliberately abuse antidepressants by combining them with alcohol or other drugs to enhance the effects.  This behavior is dangerous because the substances have opposite effects and can make depression worse.  The combination can cause serotonin syndrome and can also result in an overdose.  

Brief History of Antidepressants in the US

Antidepressants have been on the market since the early 1950s.  The first antidepressant was known as iproniazid.  This drug was previously used to treat tuberculosis.  But, doctors noticed some of their iproniazid patients experienced side effects such as increased appetite, stimulation, euphoria, and improved sleep.  

Another drug introduced during the same time period was imipramine which was a tricyclic antidepressant.  This drug also produced side effects that were similar to those experienced with iproniazid.  These drugs made a major contribution to the development of treatment for depression.  

In the 1960s, serotonin researchers introduced a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) known as fluoxetine.  The drug was approved by the FDA in 1987 and today it is one of the most recognized antidepressants available. SSRIs were just the beginning of a whole new line of antidepressant drugs.  

Since then, antidepressant prescriptions have steadily increased every year.  

“In 2008, more than 36 million antidepressant prescriptions were filled.  Ten years later, in 2018, more than 70.9 million antidepressant prescriptions were filled.”

Today, more than 15.5 million people have been using an antidepressant for five years or more.

Can a Person Become Addicted to Antidepressants?

Antidepressants aren’t addictive according to the traditional definition of addiction. But, a person can develop a physical dependence on these drugs.  Dependence is evidenced by mild withdrawal symptoms that occur when the drug is reduced or stopped. The person may seek more of the drug to relieve the uncomfortable symptoms of nausea, tremors, or worsening depression.  

While dependence may sound like the same thing as addiction, there are significant differences between the two such as: 

  • Dependence.  Refers to a physical dependence on the substance. This means the body has adapted to the presence of the drug.  Mild withdrawal symptoms may appear if the drug is not available.
  • Addiction.  Refers to both a physical and mental reliance on a substance.  It is characterized by marked changes in behavior such as continuing to use the drug despite negative consequences.  It is a chronic disorder that involves psychosocial, genetic, and environmental factors.  The drug becomes the person’s main priority and they lose interest in daily responsibilities or activities.

When used according to directions, antidepressants help a person function more productively.  However, they aren’t recommended for mild depression symptoms.  Individuals with mild depression should seek other methods for relieving their symptoms.  Counseling or lifestyle changes have helped many people manage mild symptoms.  Of course, the potential side effects are something else to consider when using antidepressants for any form of depression.

“Generally, a person who uses antidepressants will continue their daily routines without interference from side effects.  Typically, they won’t experience intense cravings for the drug or engage in dangerous behaviors.”

Many people consider antidepressants safe because they were prescribed by their doctor.  As a result, they may be careless about following dosage directions.  Or, they fail to consider the risks involved with using alcohol or other substances while taking antidepressants.  So, they put themselves at risk for overdose without realizing it.

Warning Signs of Antidepressant Overdose

Although the drugs are legal, they can still present significant risks if misused.  Anyone who is using antidepressants should be aware of the potential for overdose and be aware of the following warning signs of overdose:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Dizziness and fainting.
  • Confusion.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Shaking or tremors.
  • Breathing problems.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Convulsions.
  • Seizures.
  • Cardiac arrest.
  • Coma.

Prescription drugs rank in 3rd place on the list of most common adult poisonings in the United States today.  Also, the risks of health problems or overdose are high when large doses of the drug are ingested. So, if a person believes their medication isn’t working, it’s best to consult with a physician before increasing the dosage.  

Statistics on Antidepressant Use Today


*Increase in antidepressant use since 1999.


**Percentage of people over 18 years of age who used antidepressants in the last 30 days.


*Increase in antidepressant prescriptions written since COVID-19 began.

*American Psychological Association (APA).  By the Numbers: Antidepressant Use on the Rise

**CDC: Antidepressant Use Among Adults:  United States

“Furthermore, in 2020, global antidepressant profits reached $26.25 billion.  Also, about 264 million people worldwide suffered from depression in 2020.”  

Treatment for Antidepressant Addiction at Design for Change Recovery

Anyone who is concerned about their antidepressant use or misuse should consider professional treatment.  Stopping the drug suddenly can result in worsening symptoms of depression or other side effects.  At Design for Change Recovery, antidepressant addiction can be overcome safely and effectively.  

Our team of skilled and empathetic counselors and staff understand that no one responds to treatment the same way.  For that reason, we will assess each client’s situation and create a treatment plan based on their unique needs.  

When clients undergo treatment in our facility, they enjoy a secure, comfortable atmosphere where they can focus on healing.  We are proud to offer a comprehensive, evidence-based program that will address all aspects of the addiction for a lasting recovery.  

Learn more about our fully licensed and JCAHO accredited programs by contacting our Lancaster, CA facility today.


  • – Poisoning
  • – A Brief History of the Development of Antidepressant Drugs
  • – Global Antidepressants Market Report 2021:  COVID-19 Causes a Surge in Demand for Antidepressant Drugs as Mental Health Problems Rise

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