Should You Stay on Your Antidepressants?

One of the first questions many patients ask when they start taking antidepressants is how long they will have to take the medication. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

In fact, Rush University Medical Center is conducting a study to evaluate how long people should take antidepressants to prevent the onset of new episodes of depression. They're also researching whether adding psychotherapy to medication therapy helps prevent future cases of depression.

In the meantime, physicians generally recommend that patients take antidepressants for eight to 12 months, if not longer. Even if you experience a marked improvement after beginning treatment, you should still stay on your prescribed medication for six to nine months. Mental health experts find that shorter courses of treatment may result in recurrence of symptoms.

Physicians find that, in many cases, depressed patients must take medication longer than 12 months, and is severe cases, patients may need antidepressants for the rest of their life.

Many factors affect the duration of treatment with antidepressant medications, including your age and gender. Individuals who have a personal or family history of depression, or are facing a major, life-threatening episode of depression, may need medication for a long time.

It can take two to four months before you experience the full benefit of an antidepressant and some patients must try several medications before they find one that effectively relieves their depression symptoms. Fortunately, this uncertainty may be a thing of the past.

In the September 2009 issue of the journal Psychiatric Research, medical experts described a new, non-invasive test that allows clinicians to predict within a week whether a particular antidepressant will be effective. The Biomarkers for Rapid Identification of Treatment Effectiveness in Major Depression (BRITE-MD) study uses quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) to measure changes in brain wave patterns that precede mood improvement. These changes give physicians an early indication of how effective a medication will be so they can switch to a different medication if necessary.

Long-term use of antidepressants does not appear to cause problems, although your medication may stop working over time. If your current prescription is longer effective, your physician may change dose or switch you to a different medication. Discuss your depression treatment with your physician and continue taking the medication until you both agree it's appropriate for you to stop. If you discontinue taking antidepressants, taper off the medication slowly to prevent unpleasant medication withdrawal symptoms, such as crying spells, restlessness, dizziness, fatigue, aches and pains, depression and anxiety.