Antidepressant Addiction

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 350 million people of all ages around the globe.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that by the time they turn 18, 3.3 percent of adolescents will have a depressive disorder, and girls are more at risk than boys. Depression is characterized by episodes of sadness that affect everyday life and functioning. Symptoms must be present for at least two weeks to be diagnosed as a depressive disorder.

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 18 percent of the American population, around 40 million people, and they are the most common mental illness in the country, as reported by the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (ADSA). These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety disorders affect the way stress is processed.

Anxiety disorders and depression often co-occur together about half the time, according to ADSA. One in 10 adults over the age of 12 in the United States takes antidepressant medications that are used primarily to treat depression and anxiety disorders, making antidepressants the third leading type of prescription drug taken in America, as published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

As with any drug or medication, antidepressants are not without side effects and risk factors. The CDC reports that 14 percent of Americans currently taking antidepressant medications have been taking them for 10 years or longer, and less than one-third of those taking one antidepressant have been seen by a medical professional face to face in the past year. Approximately 80 percent of antidepressant medications are not prescribed by a psychiatrist either, as published by NIMH. Taking medications long-term and without proper supervision, medical treatment, and continuous medical evaluations by trained professionals may potentially lead to drug dependency or addiction.

Addiction vs. Dependence

There are several types of antidepressant medications on the market today, and research varies as to the addiction potential of these pharmaceuticals. Different types of medications work on the brain in varying ways, which may increase the addiction potential in some and not others. Genetic and environmental factors may also play a role in the development of a substance abuse or dependency. Researchers estimate that genetics are a factor between 40 and 60 percent of the time, making some people more prone than others to developing an addiction or substance abuse disorder, as published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Medications and drugs alike make chemical changes in the brain, and taking them before the brain is fully developed, like in adolescence, can increase the risk factors for developing a substance abuse problem later on. The use of any prescription drug beyond the scope of its intended or medical use is considered drug abuse. NIDA reports that along with over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances in America behind alcohol and marijuana. Prescription drugs are generally easy to obtain and falsely perceived as safe since they often come out of a medicine cabinet where they were initially prescribed by a doctor. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that half of all prescription drugs used for recreational, or nonmedical purpose, were obtained for free from a relative or friend who got them from a doctor. Using drugs beyond their medical scope increases the risk factors for developing an addiction.

It is important to understand the difference between addiction and dependency. Addiction is considered a disease requiring treatment, while dependence may be a natural physical occurrence when taking medications long-term. Addiction is defined as a chronic and relapsing brain disease wherein the user cannot control compulsive drug use and continues to seek out drugs beyond medical necessity and without regard to negative physical or emotional consequences. Addiction contains both emotional and physical components.

Dependence, on the other hand, is when the brain begins to rely on the chemical changes the drug initiates in the brain, and the body becomes physically dependent on the medication or drug in order to function in what it now perceives as a normal fashion. Dependence can lead to addiction, but not all the time. Someone who is physically dependent on an antidepressant and needs the medication in order to reduce symptoms, for instance, may not seek to increase dosage or engage in any compulsive drug-seeking behavior or abuse.

Are SSRIs Addictive?

There is much debate on the topic of antidepressant pharmaceuticals, specifically SSRI medications, and their addictive potential. It is well-known that substance abuse changes the chemical makeup of the brain and interferes with the natural production of several of its neurotransmitters, which are responsible for pleasure and mood much in the same way that prescription medications do. Chronic illicit drug and alcohol abuse may lead to a physical and psychological dependence on these substances in order to maintain feelings of balance and normalcy. This dependence may turn into an addiction when the need for substance abuse takes over and excessive amounts of time are dedicated to obtaining the substance, using it, and recovering from its effects. SSRI medications are often mistakenly referred to as “happy pills,” although they do not seem to produce the same sense of euphoria or artificial happiness that other medications, including benzodiazepines, do. SSRIs seek to regain a natural balance in the brain instead of merely increasing pleasant feelings; therefore, it is estimated that no high is established by taking them illicitly.

In order to be classified with an addiction, a tolerance to the drug must be established, leading to drug-seeking behavior, which doesn’t seem to occur with SSRIs. While addiction seems less likely, dependency can occur when taking SSRIs long-term as can withdrawal symptoms. This is often mistaken for true addiction. Some researchers argue that the presence of withdrawal and physical dependency does indeed make SSRIs addictive, while others disagree.

Symptoms of SSRI withdrawal include insomnia, nausea, alteration of touch sensation, and feelings of electrical shocks in the brain. When these symptoms are present, it is referred to as SSRI discontinuation syndrome, and it is not officially a side effect of addiction. A Danish study published in Science Nordic argues that as many as 37 out of the 42 withdrawal symptoms for the known addictive benzodiazepine medications that were largely discontinued as antidepressant medications with the rise of SSRIs are identical to those experienced during SSRI discontinuation syndrome.

Whether or not antidepressant and SSRI medications are considered officially addictive, if you are suffering from depression and/or long-term usage of these medications, you may benefit from specialized treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. You should not quit taking these medications without assistance from a doctor or other medical professional.

Dual Diagnosis

Depression varies widely from person to person. It is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a mood disorder affecting how you think, behave, and feel, and it is indicated by loss of interest and persistent sadness. The treatment of depression often requires both medications and behavioral or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in order to be most successful. CBT teaches coping mechanisms and helps individuals to modify negative thought and behavior patterns into more positive outlooks and self-images. Healthy lifestyle changes, including a balanced and nutritious diet as well as exercise or recreational opportunities, are helpful during recovery as well as they increase natural endorphins and pleasant feelings.

Depression often co-occurs with other mental health disorders and substance abuse as those suffering may turn to illicit substances or alcohol in order to numb the pain or in an attempt at self-medication. Similarly, the abuse of substances may lead to depression or depressive thoughts. It is often unclear which comes first, but ADAA estimates that depression and substance abuse disorders co-occur at least 20 percent of the time.

When two disorders are present in the same person at the same time, it is considered a dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorders, and specialized treatment is the best option for a lasting recovery. Evidence-based treatment models combine the expertise of clinicians with scientific research and individual personalities in order to determine the best course of action. Dual diagnosis treatment is the most successful when teams of medical professionals work together to provide integrated and simultaneous treatment of both disorders. Both depression and substance abuse disorders are then treated as primary disorders.

Whether you, or your loved one, struggle with depression, substance abuse, or both, FRN treatment centers provide comprehensive and compassionate care plans designed to fit each individual’s unique set of circumstances. Family, group and individual therapies and counseling sessions are often combined with medications and peer support or self-help groups. Contact us today to determine the best path toward a lasting and healthy recovery.

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