“He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!”
Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy. They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered! Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.
Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies. It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah. One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.
The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche. We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.
Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian. Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah. Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications. The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time. People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.”  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.
Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently. Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems. Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.
“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.
But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?
In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine . It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.
They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.
When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials. The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group. In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either. That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced. To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.
Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo. Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.
There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better. The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.
One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.
The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal. Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place. When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression . Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.
This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype. Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp
So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation. Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies. They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.
Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either. Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades. Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression .
What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6]. Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.
This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk
The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this. If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around? Are both together more powerful than each one alone?
In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy. They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available. Medication should only be considered if:
- a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
- a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
- talking therapies haven’t worked.
Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck. While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use . In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.
This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills
At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance. Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.
With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression. Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.
 Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
 Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
 Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
 Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
 Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
 Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
 Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.
If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:
- you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
- BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
- the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
- daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
- email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.
In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354
In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.