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News Analysis Jul 22, 2022 1:34 AM EST

$15 billion-a-year antidepressant industry may not help depression: scientists

"Many people take antidepressants because they have been led to believe their depression has a biochemical cause, but this new research suggests this belief is not grounded in evidence."

$15 billion-a-year antidepressant industry may not help depression: scientists
Christina Buttons Nashville, TN

A recent overview of existing meta-analyses and systematic reviews spanning decades found that depression may not be caused by a chemical imbalance. The review conducted by University College London and published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that antidepressants, a $15 billion a year industry that is set to grow to $21 billion per year in the next decade, may be ineffective at treating depression.

Most antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which for years have been said to work by correcting abnormally low serotonin levels. 85-90 percent of the public believes that depression is caused by low serotonin or a chemical imbalance, according to the researchers. But because there is no other pharmacological mechanism for antidepressants, it calls into question what the medication actually does for people taking it.

Figures show that approximately 13 percent of American adults take antidepressants annually, but the rate is much higher for women, 18 percent of whom are prescribed the medication.

Lead author Professor Joanna Moncrieff, a Professor of Psychiatry at UCL and a consultant psychiatrist at North East London NHS Foundation Trust (NELFT), says that after a vast amount of research conducted over several decades, scientists can safely say there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities.

"Many people take antidepressants because they have been led to believe their depression has a biochemical cause, but this new research suggests this belief is not grounded in evidence," she said.

She added, "Giving people this sort of misinformation prevents them from making an informed decision about whether to take antidepressants or not."

A psychotherapist from State University of New York, Dr. Jonathan Raskin, told The Daily Mail, "I think most mental health professionals familiar with the research have known for a while that the serotonin theory of depression is incomplete and has mixed research support."

When asked whether people should keep taking the pills, Raskin said, "I think that this is a conversation worth having."

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