Treatments and drugs

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Numerous depression treatments are available. Medications and psychological counseling (psychotherapy) are very effective for most people.

Your primary care doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe medications to relieve depression symptoms. However, many people with depression also benefit from seeing a psychologist or other mental health counselor.

If you have severe depression, you may need a hospital stay, or you may need to participate in an outpatient treatment program until your symptoms improve.

Here's a closer look at depression treatment options.

Medications

Many types of antidepressant medications are available to treat depression, including those below. Discuss possible major side effects with your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Doctors often start by prescribing an SSRI. These medications are safer and generally cause fewer bothersome side effects than do other types of antidepressants. SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), citalopram (Celexa) and escitalopram (Lexapro).
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Examples of SNRI medications include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR) and desvenlafaxine (Pristiq).
  • Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs). Bupropion (Wellbutrin) falls into this category. It's one of the few antidepressants not frequently associated with sexual side effects.
  • Atypical antidepressants. These medications don't fit neatly into any of the other antidepressant categories. They include trazodone and mirtazapine (Remeron). Both are sedating and usually taken in the evening. A newer medication called vilazodone (Viibryd) is thought to have a low risk of sexual side effects.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants — such as imipramine (Tofranil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor) — tend to cause more severe side effects than do newer antidepressants. So tricyclics generally aren't prescribed unless you've tried an SSRI first without improvement.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). MAOIs — such as tranylcypromine (Parnate) and phenelzine (Nardil) — may be prescribed, typically when other medications haven't worked, because they can have serious side effects. Using MAOIs requires a strict diet because of dangerous (or even deadly) interactions with foods ― such as certain cheeses, pickles and wines ― and some medications including birth control pills, decongestants and certain herbal supplements. Selegiline (Emsam), a newer MAOI that you stick on your skin as a patch, may cause fewer side effects than other MAOIs do. These medications can't be combined with SSRIs.
  • Other medications. Other medications may be added to an antidepressant to enhance antidepressant effects. Your doctor may recommend combining two antidepressants or medications such as mood stabilizers or antipsychotics. Anti-anxiety and stimulant medications might also be added for short-term use.

Finding the right medication

If a family member has responded well to an antidepressant, it may be one that could help you. Or you may need to try several medications before you find one that works. This requires patience, as some medications need several weeks or longer to take full effect and for side effects to ease as your body adjusts.

Don't stop taking an antidepressant without talking to your doctor first. Antidepressants aren't considered addictive, but sometimes physical dependence, which is different from addiction, can occur. Stopping treatment abruptly or missing several doses can cause withdrawal-like symptoms, and quitting suddenly may cause a sudden worsening of depression. Work with your doctor to gradually and safely decrease your dose.

Inherited traits play a role in how antidepressants affect you. In some cases, where available, results of genetic tests (done by blood test or cheek swab) may offer clues about how your body may respond to a particular antidepressant. The study of how genes affect a person's response to drugs is called pharmacogenomics. However, other variables besides genetics can affect your response to medication.

Antidepressants and pregnancy

If you're pregnant or breast-feeding, some antidepressants may pose an increased health risk to your unborn child or nursing child. Talk to your doctor if you become pregnant or are planning on becoming pregnant.

Antidepressants and increased suicide risk

Most antidepressants are generally safe, but the FDA requires that all antidepressants carry black box warnings, the strictest warnings for prescriptions. In some cases, children, teenagers and young adults under 25 may have an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressants, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed.

Anyone taking an antidepressant should be watched closely for worsening depression or unusual behavior. If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts when taking an antidepressant, immediately contact your doctor or get emergency help.

Keep in mind that antidepressants are more likely to reduce suicide risk in the long run by improving mood.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a general term for treating depression by talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health provider. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy, counseling or psychosocial therapy.

Different types of psychotherapy can be effective for depression, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, dialectic behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness techniques. These therapies can help you:

  • Adjust to a crisis or other current difficulty
  • Identify negative beliefs and behaviors and replace them with healthy, positive ones
  • Explore relationships and experiences, and develop positive interactions with others
  • Find better ways to cope and solve problems
  • Identify issues that contribute to your depression and change behaviors that make it worse
  • Regain a sense of satisfaction and control in your life and help ease depression symptoms, such as hopelessness and anger
  • Learn to set realistic goals for your life
  • Develop the ability to tolerate and accept distress using healthier behaviors

Hospitalization and residential treatment programs

In some people, depression is so severe that a hospital stay is needed. Inpatient hospitalization may be necessary if you can't care for yourself properly or when you're in immediate danger of harming yourself or someone else. Psychiatric treatment at a hospital can help keep you calm and safe until your mood improves.

Partial hospitalization or day treatment programs also may help some people. These programs provide the outpatient support and counseling you need while you get symptoms under control.

Other treatment options

For some people, other procedures may be suggested:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In ECT, electrical currents are passed through the brain. This procedure is thought to affect levels of neurotransmitters in your brain and typically offers immediate relief of even severe depression when other treatments don't work. Physical side effects, such as headache, are tolerable. Some people also have memory loss, which is usually temporary. ECT is usually used for people who don't get better with medications, can't take antidepressants for health reasons or are at high risk of suicide.
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS may be an option for those who haven't responded to antidepressants. During TMS, you sit in a reclining chair with a treatment coil placed against your scalp. The coil sends brief magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in your brain that are involved in mood regulation and depression. Typically, you'll have five treatments each week for up to six weeks.
Feb. 21, 2014

You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.