If you're feeling depressed, you may be wondering: Are antidepressants really necessary? Learn how antidepressants work.

Antidepressants are the most used medications to treat depression. Taking antidepressants can help manage symptoms of depression and prevent them from coming back.

Antidepressants don’t work the same for everyone. Here’s what you should know if you’re wondering whether antidepressants are right for you.

How Do You Know If You Should Take Antidepressants?

If you are depressed, you may be wondering: Are antidepressants really necessary? The answer depends on several factors, including:

  • How severe your depression is and how long you’ve had it.
  • How much your depression interferes with your daily life.
  • Whether you’ve tried other treatment options without success.
  • How many depressive episodes, if any, you’ve had.

If an antidepressant isn’t helping, isn’t helping enough, or if you have side effects, let your doctor know. They can change the dose or switch you to a different medication.

What Conditions Can Antidepressants Treat

Antidepressants aren’t only used for depression. They are also used to treat other mental and behavioral health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorder.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Severe phobias, such as agoraphobia.
  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia.

Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants for physical conditions, such as:

  • Chronic pain, including back and neck pain.
  • Nerve pain, including sciatica and multiple sclerosis (MS).
  • Trouble sleeping.

How Do Antidepressants Work?

Depression can be triggered by outside factors, like social stressors, or problems in relationships, and sometimes it is not clear what, if anything, triggered depression. Depression has been linked to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain (such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine). Antidepressants work by changing the levels of these brain chemicals. These types of medicines are not habit-forming, according to the American Psychiatric Association(APA).

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How Long Does It Take for Antidepressants to Work?

It takes time for antidepressants to work. While you may feel a little better within the first week after starting an antidepressant, for most people, it often takes between 8 to 12 weeks to experience the full benefit. Some people experience side effects before they experience benefits, and those side effects are usually temporary.

If a prescribed antidepressant does not help, your doctor may adjust your dosage, prescribe a different antidepressant, or add another medication to help it work better.

Don’t be afraid to try another antidepressant if the first one doesn’t help or provide enough relief. It can take several tries before finding the right one and the right dose.

Expect to be on an antidepressant for 6 months or more after your symptoms have improved. That’s what psychiatrists often recommend, according to the APA. People who are at high risk of relapse can be on antidepressants for several years or as a lifetime prescription.

Finding the Right Antidepressant

Antidepressants affect different people differently. What works for one person might not work for you.

Your doctor will work with you to determine which antidepressant and dose can help. To make that decision, they’ll consider:

  • What symptoms you are experiencing.
  • Your age. For children with depression, Prozac (fluoxetine) is the only FDA-approved antidepressant. For teens with depression, Prozac and Lexapro (escitalopram) are the only FDA-approved antidepressants.
  • Your gender. Women who are pregnant or who can become pregnant can’t take certain antidepressants and should talk with their doctor.
  • Any underlying health conditions.
  • Any interactions with other medications or supplements you currently take.

If you live in Allegheny County and are need immediate help or mental health counseling, call the 24/7 resolve Crisis Services hotline at 1-888-796-8226 or visit the walk-in center at 333 North Braddock Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15208.

If you are thinking of suicide or self-harm, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 412-624-1000 or 1-877-624-4100 (toll-free).

Depression; FDA-Approved Medications May Help. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Link.

Major Depression. National Institute of Mental Health. Link.

Commonly Prescribed Antidepressants and How They Work. NIH MedlinePlus Magazine. National Library of Medicine. Link.

What is Depression. American Pscyhiatric Association. Link.

Depression Medicines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Link.

Tricyclic Antidepressants. StatPearls. Link.

Depression. How Effective Are Antidepressants. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Link.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.