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Do Prescription Drugs Cause Depression?

Since 2013, the diagnosis of major depression in the United States has risen by a staggering 33% and people have noticed. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions on advertising trying to convince the general public that Prozac and Zoloft are the answer. Others blame social media addiction or the fact that Millennials, the group most acutely affected by this issue, are dealing with nearly insurmountable student loan debt. There are hundreds of theories bouncing around between psychology departments and media talking heads, but in reality there's probably no one root cause. That said, a new study in the Journal of the American Medicine Association (JAMA) by Dima Mazan Qato may have just uncovered a new log to toss onto the already raging fire. According to the report, common prescription medicines–so common they're in an estimated one third of American households–may be contributing to the rising rate of depression in the United States.


The study includes drugs like beta-blockers, prescription strength ibuprofen, and birth control pills, but stops short of saying that these definitely cause symptoms of depression in otherwise healthy individuals on their own. The real danger occurs when prescriptions are mixed. It's perfectly normal for people to need more than one medication to help them with their health issues but Qato's finding suggest that when drugs are mixed, their side effects can be compounded.

Interestingly, the percentage of drugs which list depression or suicidal thoughts as symptoms–here's a list of over 200 from the New York Times– has been steadily creeping up over the past decade, from 35% in 2005 to 38.4% in 2014. In the same period, the percentage of adults concurrently taking three or more drugs rose from 6.9% to 9.5% and the usage of medications that list suicidal thoughts and depression as side effects has increased from 17.3% to 23.5%. To a layman or (very) ametuer logician, it's easy to extrapolate a cause and effect relationship from this data, but Qato advises against this, as the data's meaning isn't completely clear. What is clear, however, is that suicide rates have been steadily increasing since the beginning of the 21st century.

Dr. Philip Muskin, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and secretary of the American Psychiatric Association suggests that the information in Qato's study, while not definitive, should be enough to warn doctors that their prescription pad can be a dangerous and unwieldy tool. The hope is that medical professionals will not hand out drugs like ibuprofen willy-nilly but rather take their side effects into account and discuss these side effects with their patients before prescribing.

Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies pay huge sums of money to doctors and hospitals to incentivize these doctors to prescribe their (the pharmaceutical companies') medications. This sets a dangerous precedent and in certain cases can be morally compromising for a physician or psychiatrist. While there is more research required before any blanket statements can be made correlating prescription drugs to our nation's current depression epidemic, Qato's study and others like it have the potential to spark a debate surrounding the way we treat medication in the United States. Hopefully said debates will create a more ethical means for doling out prescriptions.


Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff