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Antidepressant Addiction and Abuse

Antidepressants change the brain’s chemical makeup to treat mood disorders like depression. Those who abuse antidepressants might be struggling with an addiction to another substance.

Addiction to Antidepressants

Antidepressant Antidepressants aren’t addictive in the same way substances like alcohol and heroin are. Those abusing antidepressants do not experience the cravings that other drugs cause.

People can still develop a physical dependence on the antidepressants. They are also more likely to abuse other drugs.

Antidepressant dependence can form in people who never needed the drugs in the first place. Some people are incorrectly diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants. According to one study, doctors misdiagnosed almost two-thirds of patients with depression and prescribed unnecessary antidepressants.

Doctors still debate the addictive nature of antidepressants. Most consider these drugs non-addictive. Others point to the withdrawal symptoms of antidepressants as evidence that a dependence can form. People who suddenly stop taking antidepressants often have withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, hand tremors and depression.

Although there are risks with taking antidepressants, these medications help many people live better, more functional lives. Those prescribed antidepressants should never stop taking their medication without first speaking to a doctor.

What Are Antidepressants?

Antidepressants are prescription medications used to treat moderate to severe depression. The most common forms of antidepressant medication are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

SSRIs treat depression by changing the brain’s chemical balance of serotonin. This chemical impacts mood and helps users feel positive about their lives. SNRIs similarly boost mood by interacting with norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain.

Doctors also prescribe antidepressants to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder.

Antidepressants are most often available as oral tablets or capsules. Common antidepressants include:

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

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Antidepressant Effects and Abuse

Antidepressants are among the most prescribed medications in the United States. Many doctors prescribe SSRI and SNRI antidepressants as a safer alternative to benzodiazepines. Doctors consider antidepressants safer because the drugs have less potential for abuse. Despite this, some people abuse antidepressant medications.

“A small but growing literature on the misuse and abuse of antidepressants consists largely of case reports. […] The most commonly reported motivation for abuse is to achieve a psychostimulant-like effect.”

Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, Abuse and Misuse of Antidepressants, 2014

Antidepressants don’t have the euphoric effects other drugs have. In other words, antidepressants can’t get you high. That doesn’t stop some people from trying, though. Some people think that since antidepressants improve mood, high doses must induce euphoria, but that is not how the drugs work.

Antidepressants work over time, accumulating in the brain. They don’t produce immediate effects. It can take over a month before an antidepressant starts working.

Most antidepressant abuse is typically someone increasing their prescribed dose when they feel like the drug isn’t working fast enough. Some people combine antidepressants with other substances like alcohol in an attempt to amplify the medication’s effects.

Over time, antidepressants can stop working for those who truly need them. This can lead some users to increase their doses when they can’t find the relief they need on what was prescribed.

“I start to get the feeling that something is really wrong. Like all the drugs put together – the lithium, the Prozac, the desipramine, and Desyrel that I take to sleep at night – can no longer combat whatever it is that was wrong with me in the first place.”

Author Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation, 1994

Like most drugs, taking large doses of antidepressants can be dangerous. People abusing antidepressants increase their risk of overdosing.

Signs of an antidepressant overdose include:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Uncontrollable shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Irregular heartbeat

Common Drug Combinations

Alcohol is one of the most common substances combined with antidepressants. Doctors recommend avoiding alcohol while taking antidepressants. People who already suffer from another addiction, such as alcoholism, are more likely to abuse antidepressants.

Combining alcohol and antidepressants can cause problems such as:

  • Worsened depression or anxiety
  • Intense sedation
  • Dangerously high blood pressure
  • Impaired coordination
  • Overdose

Some find it hard to wait for their antidepressants to start working. During this wait, people suffering from depression may self-medicate with other drugs such as marijuana and opiates.

Antidepressant Addiction Statistics

10percent

10 percent of Americans take antidepressant medication.

60percent

More than 60 percent of Americans on antidepressants have taken them for 2 years or longer.

400percent

The rate of antidepressant use in the U.S. increased by almost 400 percent between 2005-2008.

It can be dangerous to quit antidepressants, especially if a doctor prescribed them. Quitting any antidepressant requires careful medical supervision. It is absolutely essential not to quit any antidepressant without help. If you think antidepressants have taken control of your life, call one of our addiction specialists or get in touch with your general physician first.

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Sources & Author Last Edited: January 22, 2016

  1. Rabin R (2013). "A Glut of Antidepressants." The New York Times. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/a-glut-of-antidepressants/?_r=1
  2. Evans E and Sullivan M (2014). "Abuse and Misuse of Antidepressants." The U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25187753
  3. Pratt L, Brody D and Gu Q (2011). "Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005-2008." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
  4. Kary T (2003). "Are Antidepressants Addictive?" Psychology Today. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200307/are-antidepressants-addictive
  5. Hall-Flavin D (2014). "Why is it Bad to Mix Antidepressants and Alcohol?" The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/antidepressants-and-alcohol/faq-20058231
  6. Calderone J (2014). "The Rise of All-Purpose Antidepressants." Scientific American. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-rise-of-all-purpose-antidepressants/
  7. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2014). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
  8. Evans, EA et al. Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. (2014). Abuse and Misuse of Antidepressants. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25187753
  9. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2014). Fluoxetine. Retrieved on September 30, 2015 from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a689006.html
About the Writer, Kayla Smith

Kayla Smith is the editorial director for Addiction Center. After working for years as a journalist, she joined the Addiction Center team in hopes of spreading awareness about addiction and mental health issues and helping people get treatment.

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