CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drug

According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American doctors wrote 118 million scripts for antidepressants in 2005.  Clearly, people are talking to their doctors about mental health in record numbers.

But feelings are mixed.  There’s a lot of cynicism about what might be driving the trend, as reported in this CNN story:

Dr. Robert Goodman, an internist in New York City, says the real force behind skyrocketing antidepressant prescription rates is pharmaceutical marketing to doctors and to consumers. “You put those two together and you get a lot of prescriptions for antidepressants,” he said.

He questions whether all those prescriptions are necessary. “It’s hard to believe that number of people are depressed, or that antidepressants are the answer,” he said.

The online community is also asking questions.  (A frequent connection is made between the findings of this study and the UN report on cannabis use.)

Speculation aside, however, we do know a thing or two about anti-depressants.  And their checkered history suggests that they should not be treated as a universal cure-all.

Antidepressants bibliography.

  • Ayd, F. J.  (1991).  The early history of modern psychopharmacology.  Neuropsychopharmacology, 5(2), 71-84.
  • Bullard, A.  (2002).  From vastation to Prozac nation.  Transcultural Psychiatry, 39(3), 267-294.
  • Carlsson, A.  (1990).  Early psychopharmacology and the rise of modern brain research.  Journal of Psychopharmacology, 4(3), 120-126.
  • Crossley, D.  (1993).  The introduction of leucotomy: A British case history.  History of Psychiatry, 4(16, Pt4), 553-564.
  • Finger, S. & Zaromb, F.  (2006).  Benjamin Franklin and Shock-Induced Amnesia.  American Psychologist, 61(3), 240-248.
  • Fink, M.  (1984).  Meduna and the origins of convulsive therapy.  American Journal of Psychiatry, 141(9), 1034-1041.
  • Gram, L. F.  (1991).  Concept d’antidépresseurs de seconde génération. / Concept of second generation antidepressant.  L’Encéphale, 17(1), 115-116.
  • Jacobsen, E.  (1986).  The early history of psychotherapeutic drugs.  Psychopharmacology, 89(2), 138-144.
  • Jefferson, J. W.  (1989).  Lithium: A therapeutic magic wand.  Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 50(3), 81-86.
  • Johnson, F. N.  (1992).  The evolution of lithium therapy.  Journal of Psychopharmacology, 6(2 Suppl), 325-329.
  • Kelwala, S., Stanley, M., & Gershon, S.  (1983).  History of antidepressants: Successes and failures.  Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 44(5, Sect 2), 40-48.
  • Kragh-Sorensen, P. & Bjerregaard Stage, K.  (2004).  The concept of melancholia and antidepressant treatment.  Salud Mental, 27(5), 1-7.
  • Sandler, M.  (1990).  Monoamine oxidase inhibitors in depression: History and mythology.  Journal of Psychopharmacology, 4(3), 136-139.

See also:

Hirschfeld, R. M. A.  (1998).  American health care systems and depression: The past, present, and the future.  Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 59(Suppl 20), 5-10.


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

4 thoughts on “CDC: Antidepressants most prescribed drug

  1. Where is the actual study? All of the links just take you to the article about SSRIs in pregnancy. Where is the article from the CDC listing antidepressants as the most prescribed drug?

  2. Julie–

    The link had gone dead. I have updated it. The data you’re looking for is in a table on p. 14.

    Burt, C. W., McCaig, L. F., Rechtsteiner, E. A. (2007). Ambulatory medical care utilization estimates for 2005. Advance data from vital and health statistics; no. 388. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

  3. To the extent that meta-analysis counts as an historical method, I also recommend reading a study recently published in PLoS Medicine:

    Kirsch, I, Deacon, B. J., Huedo-Medina, T. B., Scoboria, A., Moore, T. J., & Johnson, B. T. (2008). Initial Severity and Antidepressant Benefits: A Meta-Analysis of Data Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. PLoS Medicine, 5(2), 0260-0268.

    What Do These Findings Mean?
    These findings suggest that, compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective. In addition, the finding that extremely depressed patients are less responsive to placebo than less severely depressed patients but have similar responses to antidepressants is a potentially important insight into how patients with depression respond to antidepressants and placebos that should be investigated further.

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