CRF Blog

Antidepressants and Placebos

by Bill Hayes

A friend of mine is a professor of clinical psychology. Several years ago he told me that studies show that the major antidepressants do not work. (He also told me that studies show that cognitive therapy, the current rage in talk therapy, works no better than other forms of therapy.) Anyway, apparently a debate is raging on the effectiveness of antidepressants. Writing in the Scientific American blog, John Horgan looks at both sides of the debate in Are Antidepressants Just Placebos with Side Effects?

We all, to greater or lesser degrees, have this kind of personal perspective on antidepressants. But what does research on these drugs tell us about their efficacy? The long-smoldering debate over this question has flared up again recently, with two medical heavyweights staking out opposite positions. In a New York Times essay, “In Defense of Antidepressants,” Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry at Brown, insists that antidepressants “work — ordinarily well, on a par with other medications doctors prescribe.”

Kramer’s article seeks to rebut a wave of negative coverage of antidepressants, most notably a two-part essay in The New York Review of Books (which can be found here and here) by Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and now a lecturer in social medicine at Harvard. Angell cites research suggesting that antidepressants — including both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other medications — may not be any more effective than placebos for treating most forms of depression. [more]

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