In the '90s, Americans grew fond of the idea that you can fix depression simply by taking a pill — most famously fluoxetine (better known as Prozac), though fluoxetine is just one of at least seven selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that have been prescribed to treat hundreds of millions of people around the world.
But in the past few years, researchers have challenged the effectiveness of Prozac and other SSRIs in several studies. For instance, a review published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in February attributed 68% of the benefit from antidepressants to the placebo effect. Likewise, a paper published in PLoS Medicine a year earlier suggested that widely used SSRIs, including Prozac, Effexor and Paxil, offer no clinically significant benefit over placebos for patients with moderate or severe depression. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies maintain that their research shows that SSRIs are powerful weapons against depression. (Here's a helpful blog post that summarizes the debate.)
Now a major new study suggests that both critics and proponents might be right about SSRIs: the drugs can work, but they appear to work best for only a subset of depressed patients — those with a limited range of psychological problems. People whose depression is compounded with, say, substance abuse or a personality disorder may not get much help from SSRIs — which is unfortunate for the 45% to 60% of patients in the U.S. who have been diagnosed with a common mental disorder like depression and also meet the criteria for at least one other disorder, like substance abuse. (Multiple diagnoses are known in medical parlance as comorbidities.)
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