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The Down Low on Anti Ds

PHD student David Evans Bailey takes a look at the dark side of anti-depressant use.

Though they may be dubbed ‘happy pills’, the number of antidepressants prescribed in New Zealand in the last year makes for depressing reading. Ministry of Health figures show nearly 300,000 antidepressant prescriptions handed out in the year to date, with 50,000 of those going to the 13 to 30 year age group. The fact that these figures are so high clearly indicates that depression is an issue in NZ. But is a bottle of pills the right answer?

Possible side effects from anti-depressant medications include insomnia, ejaculation problems, nausea, weakness, headache, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, anxiety, nervousness, shakiness, decreased sex drive, indigestion, dizziness, impotence, all over body pain, weight gain, emotional numbness, uncontrollable limb and body movements… the list goes on[1]. And opinions vary as to how effective these medications are in relieving the symptoms of depression – some doubt they help, while others consider them to be essential.

Jim*, 26, tells a cautionary tale of his experience on antidepressants. He describes the first couple of weeks taking them as one of the most horrible feelings he has ever experienced. He felt lethargic, wobbly and “not all there”, almost as if he was floating. While on the medication, Jim also had trouble sleeping and had to take sleeping pills to counteract this – and even more disturbing to him was experiencing a complete loss of libido.

Having made it through the worst of the start-up phase, Jim started to feel better, but those closest to him noticed he was often not himself. At times, he felt detached from his life and unable to fully participate in it – not at all what he expected from a medication that was supposed to make him feel better. He says he is eager to get off the pills, but this process can take months, as the withdrawal period can be just as bad as the induction.

It was too easy to get the pills in the first place, says Jim, who, after reporting symptoms of depression, was given a test by his doctor that he was easily able to manipulate, and voila! He was off to the pharmacy to pick up his prescription. He says he regrets having started taking antidepressants, but due to financial pressures and long waiting lists, seeing a therapist was not an option.

Talking therapies in NZ are not only expensive, but also hard to come by, and since Jim is no longer a student, he does not qualify for free or discounted counselling services. He tried for months to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist, but when he finally made it to the top of the waiting list, he discovered the price—$160 for a single appointment—was unaffordable, cancelled and made a doctor’s appointment instead.

While Jim’s experience is just one out of almost 300,000 in New Zealand, it certainly begs the question of whether anti-depressant medication is prescribed too easily given the host of nasty side effects that come along with these drugs. There is no magic bullet for mental health – remedies often take time, perseverance and fortitude, with plenty of support from those close to us. While antidepressants may be the answer for some, it’s important to be well informed before embarking on any course of medication.

*Name changed on request


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