Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/9/2021
If you’re considering taking an antidepressant, there’s probably one super important question you might ask yourself: Do they work?
It makes sense, especially if you are using an antidepressant to help with moderate or severe depression.
Living with depression can be extremely difficult and upsetting. Luckily, there are ways to deal with it — like through behavioral therapy and antidepressant drugs.
So, back to the question: Do antidepressants work? Continue reading to find out.
As the name suggests, antidepressant medications are mainly used to treat depression in adults (and sometimes children, too).
A 2019 survey revealed that more than 19 million adults in the United States reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode during the previous year.
Common symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, decreased appetite, weight gain and thoughts of self-harm.
Depression is often thought to be connected to low levels of certain neurotransmitters (chemicals that transfer info between neurons) in your brain.
These neurotransmitters thought to be involved in depression include serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Antidepressants often work by increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in your brain.
For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a common type of antidepressant, and they work by increasing serotonin in your brain by blocking your brain cells from reabsorbing it.
Another common type of antidepressant is serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). They, too, prevent serotonin from being reabsorbed.
In addition, SNRIs also stop the neurotransmitter norepinephrine from being reabsorbed.
Along with depression, antidepressants can be used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa and extreme phobias.
Some antidepressants can also be prescribed off-label to manage anything from multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other ailments. They’re even sometimes used to help with bedwetting in children.
Opinions are mixed when it comes to whether or not antidepressants work. Here’s the truth: As with any treatment for depression, they work for some and not for others.
However, it is generally believed that antidepressants can work to reduce symptoms of moderate, chronic and severe depression. Some think they may not help with mild depression.
There is some research to support this, too. One systematic review from 2018 looked at people with major depressive disorder (MDD) and compared the effectiveness of a placebo against 21 different antidepressants. All the antidepressants were found to be more effective at treating MDD than the placebo.
This said, not all antidepressants work for all people — and you may need to try a few different medications before you find one that helps relieve your depression. A healthcare professional can assist you with this.
If you’ve been following along, you already know SSRIs and SNRIs are two of the most common types of antidepressants.
Under the umbrella of SSRIs, these medications are often prescribed:
Citalopram (brand name Celexa®)
Escitalopram (brand name Lexapro®)
Fluoxetine (brand name Prozac®)
Paroxetine (brand name Paxil®)
Sertraline (brand name Zoloft®)
When it comes to SNRIs, here are popular options:
Venlafaxine (sold under the brand name Effexor®)
Duloxetine (sold under the brand name Cymbalta®)
Desvenlafaxine (sold under the brand name Pristiq®)
Another common antidepressant is bupropion (brand name Wellbutrin®). It is an atypical antidepressant — which just means that it doesn’t fall under one of the main categories of antidepressants.
It can take four to eight weeks of consistently taking prescribed antidepressants before they start to work.
While we are on the subject of taking antidepressants, it is also good to note that it’s important to take your antidepressant at relatively the same time each day.
If you miss a dose, take it as soon as you remember. Or, if it’s close to your next dose, just take your next dose. Do not double up.
Note: Once you start taking an antidepressant, make sure you don’t just suddenly stop. If you do, it can cause withdrawal symptoms — including restlessness, sleep issues, stomach problems, irritability and more.
Plus, your depression could likely return, depending on your condition and situation.
If you do want to stop taking your antidepressant, speak with a healthcare professional for the best way. They’ll likely have you taper doses until you are off them completely.
Antidepressants are one of the most common treatments for depression — a mental health condition that affects tens of millions of people in the United States.
Symptoms of depression (like weight gain, difficulty sleeping and irritability) can severely impact your life — which is what makes treatment so important.
It is thought that depression may stem from issues with neurotransmitters in your brain. For example, having low serotonin, and antidepressants have been shown to boost neurotransmitter levels.
There are different types of antidepressants, including SSRIs, SNRIs and atypical antidepressants, and finding one that works can come down to you as an individual.
There is evidence that antidepressants are an effective treatment for people with depression — especially moderate, chronic and severe depression.
If you are interested in exploring taking antidepressants, it’s best to talk with a healthcare professional.
They will be able to assess your situation and determine your best course of treatment for depression — like putting you on an effective antidepressant.
Your healthcare provider may also suggest you take medication in conjunction with participating in cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy.
You can also find more information on online counseling and online psychiatry, along with support groups and mental health resources — all of which can help you on your way to feeling better.