Antidepressants Alone Don’t Lead to Higher Quality of Life, Study Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • While antidepressants often help people with depressive disorder manage their symptoms, new research shows that the use of these drugs is not associated with improved quality of life in the long term.
  • Experts say antidepressants are meant to reduce the symptoms of depression, but that does not necessarily mean a patient will suddenly have a happier, more fulfilling life.
  • Behavioral and lifestyle changes must therefore accompany the antidepressants, and more research is needed to determine the impact of these interventions on patients’ quality of life.

Though widespread use of antidepressants has helped millions manage depressive symptoms with success, new research suggests these drugs are not associated with improved quality of life in the long run.

The study, published by researchers at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, examined data from the 2005–2015 United States Medical Expenditures Panel Survey (MEPS), a large longitudinal study that tracks what health services Americans use.

It found that an average of around 17.5 million adult patients were diagnosed with depression each year, and 57.6% of them were treated with antidepressant medications.

While using antidepressants was associated with some improvement in the mental component of the quality of life, there was no significant difference between the quality of life of people with depressive disorder who did not take antidepressants and those who did.

“It challenges our views of what antidepressants are and what they do,” professional counselor Eric Patterson, LPC, who is not affiliated with the study, told Verywell. “People expect these medications to significantly impact their health, well-being, and life satisfaction, so to believe that they do not produce that effect is shocking.”

But to truly understand how antidepressants work, Patterson said it’s important to clarify that reducing depression is not the same as improving life. “Just because your depressive symptoms decrease does not mean your life is better, happier, or more fulfilling,” he said.

What antidepressants are meant to do is attack and treat the signs and symptoms of depression, Patterson explained. They can reduce suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and they can also improve sleep and energy levels.

These positive effects can motivate people to take action to improve their lives, but the antidepressant alone cannot make someone feel happy and fulfilled, he said.

Antidepressants Act as a Starting Point

Psychotherapist Leighya Richard, LMHC, said antidepressants essentially give patients an “even starting point.”

“Like other medications to treat physical health disorders, they are used to maintain the health condition rather than cure it,” Richard told Verywell. “Many people will get on medication and continue with the same thought patterns, lifestyle, as well as behavioral patterns. In a sense, the antidepressant is keeping them from experiencing an acute episode, yet all other aspects of their lives remain the same.”

It’s for this reason that Patterson, Richard, and the study authors all said behavioral and lifestyle changes are just as important for patients with depression.

Richard emphasized the need for guidance from mental health professionals to help patients shift their mindset and stop repeating self-defeating patterns, while Patterson said habits as simple as exercise, healthy eating, and spending time with loved ones are powerful ways to supplement and boost the effects of antidepressants.

“Although we still need our patients with depression to continue using their antidepressant medications, long-term studies evaluating the actual impact of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions on these patients’ quality of life is needed,” the study authors wrote.

What This Means For You

If you’ve been diagnosed with depressive disorder, antidepressants alone won’t likely improve your overall quality of life in the long term. But these drugs can help you manage the disorder, and your quality of life may improve when combined with lifestyle and behavioral changes.

1 Source
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  1. Almohammed OA, Alsalem AA, Almangour AA, Alotaibi LH, Yami MSA, Lai L. Antidepressants and health-related quality of life (HRQoL) for patients with depression: analysis of the medical expenditure panel survey from the United StatesPLoS One. 2022;17(4):e0265928. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0265928

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.