Since the supposed discovery, more than three decades ago, that depression had a chemical origin (primarily a lack of serotonin production in the brain), there has been a boom in antidepressant prescriptions. Countries like the United States have become “Prozac nations,” and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have become some of the most financially profitable drugs in the history of the pharmaceutical industry.
The campaign for these first and second-generation substances included passive-aggressive commercials that flooded the airwaves in the United States. They spread the idea that depression was due to a neurochemical disorder.
However, after thirty years of these treatments, not much progress has been made in the “cure” of depression. Thus, countries like the United States or Great Britain have reported increasingly higher figures in terms of the number of depressed people, particularly young people. The explanation for this is manifold, but the largest meta-analysis to date may shed some light on the matter. The treatment preferred by psychiatrists is ineffective because it is based on an error in the etymology of depression.
Antidepressants are not the solution
Researcher Joanna Moncrieff, from University College London, explained that “many people have taken antidepressants because they have been convinced that depression has a biochemical cause. However, new research suggests that this belief is not based on evidence.” Moncrieff cited “a vast body of research” showing that “there is no conclusive evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities.”
Severe withdrawal effects
At the same time, while there is no evidence on the biochemical cause of depression, the evidence on the side effects of antidepressants is abundant. The same researcher points out that “thousands of people suffer from side effects from antidepressants, including severe withdrawal effects.” Among these, the best known and recurring is the loss of sexual desire and its associated functions. Furthermore, the authors of this study suggest that there is a possibility that antidepressants actually promote low serotonin production in the long run.
In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, the cases of thousands of people were analyzed. No difference was found in blood serotonin levels between people diagnosed and healthy people. It was even observed that, in hundreds of individuals, artificially lowering serotonin levels did not lead to a state of depression.
The evidence rather points to certain events in life, those that are very stressful, correlate with depression. Common sense offers greater clarity for treatment than psychiatric science.
Data and evidence on antidepressants
As described, the fact that there is no evidence to conclude that the serotonin abnormality in the brain is not the cause of this disease, does not mean that antidepressants cannot work and, in fact, in some cases do they work. It may be that they have placebo effects, that they are cofactors of other aspects of a treatment, or that they work simply by “turning off” emotions. For the same reason, it is not recommended to cut them without the assistance of a doctor. However, the fact that they work in some cases does not imply that depression has a biochemical cause or that antidepressants are the best treatment.
Depression is a lack of meaning and connection in life
The writer Justin Garson, author of the book Madness: A philosophical exploration (Oxford, 2022), has made a series of comments in this regard that deserve to be rescued. According to Garson, saying that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin is like “saying that a pain in the spine is caused by a lack of cortisone.” It is an absurd reductionism, typical of rampant materialism, to think that “depression is due to the lack of a chemical.” Or, we could now say, with the recent approval of psychedelics: “depression is a lack of psilocybin in the brain” (since the brain naturally produces psilocybin-like substances). But this is obviously absurd. More reasonable would be to say that “depression is a lack of meaning and connection in life” (but this does not make sense to materialistic reductionism).
More importantly, even if a condition is not caused by a chemical deficiency, it does not mean that a substance cannot help. For example, ibuprofen can be used to relieve a headache, without the lack of it being the source of the pain.
In this context, in various Anglo-Saxon countries, 85% of people believe that depression is just a chemical imbalance in the brain; in some cases it may be keeping them from finding a solution.
Professor Coleen Aldous argues that this perception is not accidental: the so-called “Big Pharma” is responsible for this belief. Pharmaceutical companies, he points out, have helped promote the idea that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. All this, despite the fact that there was never conclusive evidence in this regard.
Other reactions within the scientific community have been more cautious, not without confirming the same. For example, Dr. Phil Cowen of the University of Oxford noted that: “No health professional today would hold the view that a complex condition such as depression results from the deficiency of a single neurotransmitter.” Many psychiatrists now advocate the biopsychosocial theory of depression.