Treatment-resistant depression

Sometimes depression doesn't get better, even with treatment. Explore what you can do about it.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you've been treated for depression but your symptoms haven't improved, you may have treatment-resistant depression. Taking an antidepressant or going to psychological counseling (psychotherapy) eases depression symptoms for most people. But with treatment-resistant depression, standard treatments aren't enough. They may not help much at all, or your symptoms may improve, only to keep coming back.

If your primary care doctor prescribed antidepressants and your depression symptoms continue despite treatment, ask your doctor if he or she can recommend a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions (psychiatrist).

The psychiatrist will review your medical history and may:

  • Ask about life situations that might be contributing to your depression
  • Consider your response to treatment, including medications, psychotherapy or other treatments you've tried
  • Review all of the medications you're taking, including nonprescription drugs and herbal supplements
  • Make sure that you're taking your medications as prescribed and following other treatment steps
  • Consider a diagnosis of another mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder, which can cause or worsen depression and may require different treatment; dysthymia, a mild but long-term (chronic) form of depression; or a personality disorder that contributes to the depression not getting better
  • Consider physical health conditions that can sometimes cause or worsen depression, such as thyroid disorders, chronic pain or heart problems

Treatment-resistant depression symptoms can range from mild to severe and may require trying a number of approaches to identify what helps.

Medication strategies

If you've already tried an antidepressant and it didn't work, don't lose hope. You and your doctor simply may not have found the right dose, medication or combination of medications that works for you. Here are some medication options that your doctor may discuss with you:

  • Give your current medications more time. Antidepressants and other medications for depression typically take four to eight weeks to become fully effective and for side effects to ease up. For some people, it takes even longer.
  • Increase your dose. Because people respond to medications differently, you may benefit from a higher dose of medication than is usually prescribed. Ask your doctor whether this is an option for you — don't change your dose on your own.
  • Switch antidepressants. For a number of people, the first antidepressant tried isn't effective. You may need to try several before you find one that works for you.
  • Add another type of antidepressant. Your doctor may prescribe two different classes of antidepressants at the same time. That way they'll affect a wider range of brain chemicals linked to mood. These chemicals are neurotransmitters that include dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Add a medication generally used for another condition. Your doctor may prescribe a medication that's generally used for another mental or physical health disorder, along with an antidepressant. This approach, known as augmentation, may include antipsychotics, mood stabilizers (lithium or anti-seizure medications), anti-anxiety medications, thyroid hormone, beta blockers, stimulants or other drugs.
  • Consider the cytochrome P450 (CYP450) genotyping test. This test checks for specific genes that indicate how well your body can process (metabolize) a medication. Because of inherited (genetic) traits that cause variations in certain P450 enzymes, medications may affect each person differently. However, CYP450 tests aren't a sure way to tell which antidepressant will work. Your local hospital may not provide genetic tests, but lab testing may be available through national laboratories. However, this testing is not always covered by insurance.

Psychological counseling

Psychological counseling (psychotherapy) by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional can be very effective. For many people, psychotherapy combined with medication works best. It can help identify underlying concerns that may be adding to your depression. For example, psychotherapy can help you:

  • Find better ways to cope with life's challenges
  • Deal with past emotional trauma
  • Manage relationships in a healthier way
  • Learn how to reduce the effects of stress in your life
  • Address substance misuse issues

If counseling doesn't seem helpful, talk to your psychotherapist about trying a different approach. Or consider seeing someone else. As with medications, it may take several tries to find a treatment that works. Psychotherapy for depression may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This common type of counseling addresses thoughts, feelings and behaviors that affect your mood. It helps you identify and change distorted or negative thinking patterns and teaches you skills to respond to life's challenges in a positive way.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy. A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy helps you to engage in positive behaviors, even when you have negative thoughts and emotions. It's designed for treatment-resistant conditions.
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy. Interpersonal psychotherapy focuses on resolving relationship issues that may contribute to your depression.
  • Family or marital therapy. This type of therapy involves family members or your spouse or partner in counseling. Working out stress in your relationships can help with depression.
  • Group psychotherapy. This type of counseling involves a group of people who struggle with depression working together with a psychotherapist.
  • Psychodynamic treatment. The aim of this counseling approach is to help you resolve underlying problems linked to your depression by exploring your feelings and beliefs in-depth.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy. This type of therapy helps you build acceptance strategies and problem-solving skills. This is useful for chronic suicidal thoughts or self-injury behaviors, which sometimes accompany treatment-resistant depression.
Jul. 24, 2014 See more In-depth