Are Antidepressants Addictive?

Antidepressants are the first-line treatment for a variety of mental health disorders, not just depression. In the U.S., 12% of people ages 12 and older take an antidepressant regularly. In fact, antidepressant use has risen in the U.S. and Europe in recent years. As some of the most commonly prescribed drugs for mental health issues, antidepressants are highly effective, and they improve patients’ quality of life and even save lives. But can someone get addicted to antidepressants?

What are antidepressants?

Antidepressants are prescription medications that affect the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, namely serotonin, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are known to play a role in the symptoms of many mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. Antidepressants are also used to treat chronic pain disorders and sleep issues.

SNRIs and SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. Antidepressants are divided into several drug categories:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors
  • Tricyclics
  • Noradrenaline and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs)
Can you get addicted to Antidepressants?

Antidepressants work by balancing the different types of neurotransmitters in the brain. In people with depression, their brains do not produce enough serotonin or norepinephrine. Antidepressants work to prevent the brain from reabsorbing these important neurochemicals. Once a person starts taking an antidepressant, these neurochemicals are left to circulate in the brain for longer. It can take several weeks for a patient to notice any effects. The drugs do not work immediately, although they can work faster in some patients more than others. Everyone responds a little differently to antidepressant medications. One type of drug may work for one patient, while another may have to try a few different drugs or treatments to find one that gives them any symptom relief.

Can someone develop an addiction to an antidepressant?

Antidepressants are safe to take, and patients are at low risk of forming an addiction to the drugs. However, any substance or activity that lifts a person’s mood has the potential to become addictive. To fully appreciate whether or not an antidepressant is addictive, readers must understand how tolerance and dependence work.

What is drug tolerance?

Drug tolerance is the process by which a person takes a substance, and their body and brain become used to it. To get the desired effect, the person will have to keep taking more and more of a substance to produce the result they want. The concept of tolerance is one of the most critical factors for determining if a substance is addictive or not. When a person stops responding to a drug unless they take a larger dose of it, then they have developed a potentially problematic tolerance.

However, antidepressants do not come with much of a risk of developing a high tolerance to the drug. Taking more of the drug will not have a different effect. Doses of antidepressants are controlled and predictable.

Can someone become dependent on antidepressants?

Antidepressant medications aren’t addictive like other prescription medications like opioids or benzodiazepines. Antidepressants aren’t addictive like illegal street drugs like heroin or methamphetamine. However, it is possible for a person on antidepressants to develop a tolerance to the medications. This means that when they stop taking antidepressants, they may experience some withdrawal symptoms or fear they won’t be able to function without the drug. It’s understandable that a person who has suffered from depression in the past but has found relief with antidepressants would be opposed to stopping. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms for antidepressants are tremors, nausea, depression, and anxiety. It’s critical that people who’ve been prescribed antidepressants should never stop taking them without first speaking to their doctor.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that someone will abuse their antidepressant medication, although antidepressant abuse is rare. The people most at-risk of abusing antidepressant drugs are people with a personal or family history of drug addiction and abuse. When people abuse antidepressants, they will try to take more of the drug than is prescribed because they don’t think the medication is working fast enough. But antidepressants take several weeks to have any noticeable effect on the patient’s mood. Also, some people may abuse antidepressants by mixing them with alcohol to get a euphoric effect, but antidepressants do not produce a euphoric effect, even when combined with alcohol. If a person is taking MAOIs, it is deadly to mix these medications with alcohol. When antidepressants are mixed with alcohol, users risk dampening the impact of their medication and making their depression or anxiety worse. Mixing antidepressants with alcohol in the hopes of getting a euphoric effect is a symptom of alcoholism and a cause for concern. If someone is doing this, they may need to speak to a qualified drug abuse counselor, or their depression may be so severe that they need a rapid-acting treatment for their depression.

Can a patient safely wean off antidepressant medications?

Other prescription drugs often come with painful and distressing withdrawal side effects, like narcotics and opioid medications. For most patients who stop taking their antidepressant medications under a physician’s guidance, they will not experience distressing withdrawal symptoms when weaning off the drug. However, a minority of patients will experience withdrawal symptoms, but they are typically mild.

What should someone do if they suspect a person is abusing their antidepressants?

Signs of abuse include taking more antidepressants than is prescribed, mixing the pills with alcohol or other drugs, secretiveness, and increased irritability or personality changes. A person who is abusing prescription antidepressants with alcohol is at high-risk of overdosing on alcohol, becoming addicted to alcohol, and also preventing their medication from working. Abusing antidepressants will make their depression and anxiety worse. People who are abusing their medication need to speak to an experienced drug abuse counselor to get the help they need for drug abuse and depression.

Research Shows Pros and Cons of Antidepressants

In 2019, 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. During the pandemic, that number rose to approximately 1 in 4. Adults also reported an increase in alcohol or drug use, physical complaints caused by stress and worry, and sleeping problems. There is an ongoing controversy in the country over the use of antidepressants to treat disorders like these. Are antidepressants safe, or do antidepressant side effects outweigh their benefits? Does insurance pay for depression treatment at Southern California rehab centers?

What the Studies Say

Although the data is increasing, it is also limited and based mostly on case reports. After examining existing research in 2014, the authors of one study found most cases of abuse occurred in individuals with co-occurring substance or mood disorders. The goal was usually to create a stimulant effect by using high doses in nose sprays or injections. The severity of negative experiences varied with the type of antidepressant, but they included confusion, seizures, and psychotic reactions.

The authors also concluded most people don’t misuse the drugs, but some types have more potential for abuse than others. Individuals in controlled settings or those with substance use disorders were the most likely culprits. The most frequently misused category of antidepressants were monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), with incidents occurring mostly from the 1960s to the 1990s. In recent decades, the majority of incidents have involved bupropion, an antidepressant also used to treat seasonal affective disorder and nicotine addiction.

The Myths and the Stigma

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness and the drugs used to treat it. Some people don’t admit they’re depressed because they don’t want to be judged or seen as weak, and others feel ashamed to ask for help. Even scientists don’t entirely understand how the drugs work, but scientists at Rockefeller University published information in 2020 that may help. If they can figure out what makes SSRIs work, they may be able to reverse the damage caused by depression and other neurological disorders.

Antidepressant side effects exist, but there and many kinds of antidepressants. Individuals all have different reactions. The medication that doesn’t work for one person may be ideal for another. It’s a process of trial and error.

Eight Facts About Antidepressants

These facts dispute common myths about depression:

  • Taking antidepressants doesn’t mean you’re weak, lazy or a failure.
  • Antidepressants can help you deal with problems, but it doesn’t make you forget them.
  • Antidepressants are not addictive, but they should be gradually tapered to prevent symptoms of physical dependence or relapse.
  • Antidepressants can help to relieve depression and prevent it from recurring.
  • Antidepressant side effects, if they exist, can often be managed.
  • It is important to take antidepressants as prescribed for them to be effective.
  • Antidepressants may not work immediately. The length of the wait varies.
  • Antidepressants may make you feel better, but they won’t change who you are.
Bipolar Disorder 1 vs Bipolar Disorder 2

Are Antidepressants Safe?

Antidepressants aren’t for everybody, but they can be a safe and effective tool for treating depressive disorders. If you or someone you love has a problem with depression or prescription drug dependence, Mission Harbor Behavioral Center, a Southern California rehab program, can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Updated 3/31/2021

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

Get Help Now

Alcohol addiction is extremely difficult to overcome on your own.. Seek specialized help and let professionals guide you in your recovery.