Treatment

Medications and psychotherapy are effective for most people with depression. Your primary care doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe medications to relieve symptoms. However, many people with depression also benefit from seeing a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional.

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 antidepressants are available, including those below. Be sure to discuss possible major side effects with your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Doctors often start by prescribing an SSRI. These drugs are considered safer and generally cause fewer bothersome side effects than other types of antidepressants. SSRIs include citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), sertraline (Zoloft) and vilazodone (Viibryd).
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Examples of SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq, Khedezla) and levomilnacipran (Fetzima).
  • Atypical antidepressants. These medications don't fit neatly into any of the other antidepressant categories. They include bupropion (Wellbutrin XL, Wellbutrin SR, Aplenzin, Forfivo XL), mirtazapine (Remeron), nefazodone, trazodone and vortioxetine (Trintellix).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants. These drugs — such as imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), amitriptyline, doxepin, trimipramine (Surmontil), desipramine (Norpramin) and protriptyline (Vivactil) — can be very effective, but tend to cause more-severe side effects than 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), phenelzine (Nardil) and isocarboxazid (Marplan) — may be prescribed, typically when other drugs 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 and herbal supplements. Selegiline (Emsam), a newer MAOI that sticks on the 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 adding medications such as mood stabilizers or antipsychotics. Anti-anxiety and stimulant medications also may 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 or a combination of 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.

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

Risks of abruptly stopping medication

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.

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 with your doctor if you become pregnant or you're planning to become pregnant.

Antidepressants and increased suicide risk

Most antidepressants are generally safe, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants to carry a black box warning, the strictest warning for prescriptions. In some cases, children, teenagers and young adults under age 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, especially when starting a new medication or with a change in dosage. If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts when taking an antidepressant, immediately contact a 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 professional. Psychotherapy is also known as talk therapy or psychological therapy.

Different types of psychotherapy can be effective for depression, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy. Your mental health professional may also recommend other types of therapies. Psychotherapy 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

Alternate formats for therapy

Formats for depression therapy as an alternative to face-to-face office sessions are available and may be an effective option for some people. Therapy can be provided, for example, as a computer program, by online sessions, or using videos or workbooks. Programs can be guided by a therapist or be partially or totally independent.

Before you choose one of these options, discuss these formats with your therapist to determine if they may be helpful for you. Also, ask your therapist if he or she can recommend a trusted source or program. Some may not be covered by your insurance and not all developers and online therapists have the proper credentials or training.

Smartphones and tablets that offer mobile health apps, such as support and general education about depression, are not a substitute for seeing your doctor or therapist.

Hospital and residential treatment

In some people, depression is so severe that a hospital stay is needed. This 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 needed to get symptoms under control.

Other treatment options

For some people, other procedures, sometimes called brain stimulation therapies, may be suggested:

  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In ECT, electrical currents are passed through the brain to impact the function and effect of neurotransmitters in your brain to relieve depression. 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, a treatment coil placed against your scalp sends brief magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in your brain that are involved in mood regulation and depression.

Alternative medicine

Alternative medicine is the use of a nonconventional approach instead of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine is a nonconventional approach used along with conventional medicine — sometimes called integrative medicine.

Make sure you understand the risks as well as possible benefits if you pursue alternative or complementary therapy. Don't replace conventional medical treatment or psychotherapy with alternative medicine. When it comes to depression, alternative treatments aren't a substitute for medical care.

Supplements

Examples of supplements that are sometimes used for depression include:

  • St. John's wort. Although this herbal supplement isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat depression in the U.S., it may be helpful for mild or moderate depression. But if you choose to use it, be careful — St. John's wort can interfere with a number of medications, such as heart drugs, blood-thinning drugs, birth control pills, chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS medications and drugs to prevent organ rejection after a transplant. Also, avoid taking St. John's wort while taking antidepressants because the combination can cause serious side effects.
  • SAMe. Pronounced "sam-E," this dietary supplement is a synthetic form of a chemical that occurs naturally in the body. The name is short for S-adenosylmethionine (es-uh-den-o-sul-muh-THIE-o-neen). SAMe isn't approved by the FDA to treat depression in the U.S. It may be helpful, but more research is needed. SAMe may trigger mania in people with bipolar disorder.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, flax oil, walnuts and some other foods. Omega-3 supplements are being studied as a possible treatment for depression. While considered generally safe, in high doses, omega-3 supplements may interact with other medications. More research is needed to determine if eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve depression.

Nutritional and dietary products aren't monitored by the FDA the same way medications are. You can't always be certain of what you're getting and whether it's safe. Also, because some herbal and dietary supplements can interfere with prescription medications or cause dangerous interactions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements.

Mind-body connections

Integrative medicine practitioners believe the mind and body must be in harmony for you to stay healthy. Examples of mind-body techniques that may be helpful for depression include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Relaxation techniques such as yoga or tai chi
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Massage therapy
  • Music or art therapy
  • Spirituality
  • Aerobic exercise

Relying solely on these therapies is generally not enough to treat depression. They may be helpful when used in addition to medication and psychotherapy.