Astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans

Peter Wehrwein

Contributor, Harvard Health

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Remember when the best-selling book Listening to Prozac came out almost 20 years ago?

Now Americans aren’t just reading about Prozac. They are taking it and other antidepressants (Celexa, Effexor, Paxil, Zoloft, to name just a few) in astounding numbers.

According to a report released yesterday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the rate of antidepressant use in this country among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% between 1988–1994 and 2005–2008.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

Here are a few other stand-out statistics from the report on antidepressants:

  • 23% of women in their 40s and 50s take antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group (by age or sex)
  • Women are 2½ times more likely to be taking an antidepressant than men (click here to read a May 2011 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter about women and depression)
  • 14% of non-Hispanic white people take antidepressants compared with just 4% of non-Hispanic blacks and 3% of Mexican Americans
  • Less than a third of Americans who are taking a single antidepressants (as opposed to two or more) have seen a mental health professional in the past year
  • Antidepressant use does not vary by income status.

So is it a good thing that so many more Americans are taking antidepressants? Many (perhaps most) mental health professionals would say, yes, because depression has been undertreated and because antidepressants are effective.

But there are also plenty of critics, as shown by this review in the New York Review of Books, who say the benefits have been overstated and that pharmaceutical company marketing is responsible for the surge in prescriptions.

Of course there’s a middle ground that combines—some might say muddles—these two points of view: depression was neglected and sometimes antidepressants are the remedy, but there is some overuse and has been a major factor in the 400% increase.

What do you think? Has an antidepressant worked for you? Have the benefits been exaggerated and the side effects downplayed?

Related Information: Understanding Depression


  1. Cassie Miller

    This post is really helpful and got more ideas that gives me inner understanding about this matter. I think people are getting dependent on drugs because this made things so easy for them and not knowing that it does not give them a good outcome to can fix the real problem.

  2. Anonymous

    I think the medicine of depression is calm the mind and pray to god…

  3. Anonymous

    Wow if that is the percentage of American taking anti-depressant pill that could be outrageous. Does they consulted a doctor before taking those meds?

  4. Miguel

    I agree with others here. The zombie state is what happened to a friend of mine, and it is definitely worthwhile to seek an alternative.

    Great post.

  5. Maya

    By the way, his situation worsened to the point of suicidal thoughts with the use of antidepressants. That is why this experience left a bitter taste in my mouth.

  6. Maya - Frases Para Enamorar

    No disrespect to those that use antidepressants, but I am not a believer in that method in the least. I feel there are other methods and techniques that are adequate enough rather than resorting to pills.

    I had an uncle who used antidepressants, and his situation worsened significantly. Again, I realize all is circumstantial, but I feel there is other methods one should seek to treat depression.

  7. carl

    fresh air,exercise,family,faith,toxin free mind allowing clear thinking is probably the best medicine you can get, but often the free stuff his the hardest to get, be strong

  8. Peter Bloch

    Also, it is interesting to note that the placebo effect is statistically as great as that of many SSRI drugs. Perhaps that points to a way forward?

  9. Peter Bloch

    I think that it is quite natural to look for “quick fixes” to problems, even problems of the human spirit. But that does not mean that quick fixes will really work for most people, at least not on their owm.

  10. Paul

    The use of antidepressants, is it a sign of the times we live in?

  11. Pointblank

    I think there is a better treatment to all those tensions, frustrations, bad times and ill health. The answer is “laugh”. What better treatment can be than this. The easiest way to laugh is by watching funny videos. The more you watch funny videos the more you can bring in smile in your face. So start watching funny and live longer.

  12. chris jones

    I am amazed at how many people take these anti-depresants. I truly think they are way over perscribed and to be honest is one of our problems causing health insurance to go higher.

    I truly believe a lot of people use it as a crutch and its also a easy way for doctors to get some patient’s out of their office.

  13. Carolin

    Hi, I think that the antidepressant meds are a bless and a curse at the same time becuse it can be a real realif some time and then you realise how much damage you did to your body.

    So you are right (:

  14. Carolin

    Hi, I think that the antidepressant meds are a bless and a curse at the same time becuse it can be a real realif some time and then you realise how much damage you did to your body.

    So you are right (:


  15. lexvalorem

    We can consider this post because there showing up of addictive information about an drugs.

    We must control over an medicine on human body things so we must maintain the relaxations on the world

    Actually now a days more peoples taking about an drugs in the worlds or not?

  16. Heather Smith

    Eating or taking drugs just to forget problems will not help. After the effect of the medicine, here you go again and still drowning in your problem. The best way to is to pray and pray and pray. There are problems that is meant to happen because of some reasons. Thanks for posting this.

  17. Mikael

    Hi,maybe more people whould try to follow Michelle´s recipe, instead of eating different types of drugs:

    “I have been depresses, and sought help professionally, then studied with the NIWH and learned that I had to take care of myself before I could help anyone else; so I started eating well, that is nutritionally, exercising at a gym were I would be with others, and walking my poor dog who I am sure got as depressed as I was. Now I met a wonderful man and am enjoying life again. just keep going, and realize you can best help yourself, and you must be with other people and do whatever it takes to be with other! Know that many of us care about you, too;)”

  18. JBB

    Is there any connection between increased statin use and the prescription of antidepressants during this time period?

  19. Bev

    The problems in this world are way to numerous to list, and so many cannot cope. Add to this the fact that meds are way overprescribed and most people would rather take a pill than deal with the problem or fix it, and you have the drug-taking problems we see today.

  20. Zankelit

    Generally, the amount of people who take antideppressants looks too much. It’s almost “trendy” these days…
    Personally, it took a long time to find me the right antideppressant. It really got me back on my feet. I’m alive again. For me it worth everything, even the many side affects.

  21. Anonymous

    Rising depression is not a surprise. Work too much = too much stress.

  22. Angel Parker

    The usage of antidepressants has risen dramatically in the last 5 years. The survey also reveals that females are more likely than males to take antidepressant medication.

  23. Sallyg

    Definitely works for me. After months of fighting to get up to “baseline” every morning and waking up to “racing thoughts” every night(note: started after the physical changes of menopause)I finally asked my internist about it. We agreed to do an empiric trial of Lexapro. That night I slept thru for the first time in ages and woke up feeling ready to just go ahead and live my life. Now that I’m working out regularly and really watching my diet (no sugar), I want to try to reduce or eliminate my dose. I was not depressed the entire day; just mornings and sleep were hell. So for me, depression is a neurochemical imbalance – a lack of serotonin, rather like a diebetic has a lack of insulin.

  24. Is Homeopathy treatment effective for depression?

  25. Pam

    We’re an addicted society — and for the most part too lazy to get the sources of the depression cleared up — well, maybe not always too lazy — we are also uneducated, misdirected by the pharmaceutical industry, and left without work-able options. (Particularly, since insurance co.s refuse to pay for alternative measures …) It’s a big o’ mess ~

  26. Anonymous

    This is never a good news. Antidepressants we all now are addictive to some extent. Unless proper and consistent education is pushed through to the public, the increase of antidepressant use among Americans is going to be alarming than ever.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  27. Nick Outlaw

    A direct correlation with the decrease in physical exercise. Studies show that regular exercise is as powerful and effective as antidepressants! Get moving and stay moving!

  28. Kathy

    This is no surprise to me. People today feel overwhelmed. With both men and women working, the demands of kids, careers, elderly parents are just too much. There’s no backup for most of us with families dispersed across the country, making for very stressful lives. Depression, fear, and anxiety are rampant in today’s workplace. SSRIs are effective for many people, and make it possible for them to cope with life. It’s unfortunate that the SSRIs have side effects and are very difficult to discontinue. A lot of people deal with life by drinking every day, some with SSRIs. Not much difference, to my mind. And that’s not a judgment – people have been looking to substances to help them cope with life’s stresses since time began.

  29. DC1734

    I have suffered from Bipolar I Disorder all of my adult life. During the highs I am completely out of control and during the depressions I have tried to kill myself several times. The suffering I and my family went through before I was diagnosed and treated is unimaginable to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

    My meds have literally saved my life and I don’t really suffer any side effects.While I think there is plenty of overdiagnoses and over medicating going on, there are many of us who are deeply thankful these drugs exist.

  30. Mel

    They are definitely over prescribed. I have seen first hand the terrible effects of prescription med abuse. The docs write handfuls of scripts to band-aid problems instead of getting to the root cause.

    There needs to be more education before handing pills out. Accountability belongs to patient and doctor.

    Addiction is the responsibility of the individual, as well as knowing when to seek help.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  31. Pat Carter

    I dont blame the doctors – I blessed them when I was able to live without depression.
    But if I had known that which wasn’t spoken of 18 years ago -when I began with them – that I would be unable to stop taking them, I would have tried to carefully wean myself after the crisis. I dont know really whether that would have been possible – even then – but I had no inkling I would be on them forever,

  32. Len Lempa

    Way overused. I work as a professional in the field for over 25 years now. The research shows that antidepressants are not as effective for mild to moderate depression as exercise and they come with a large host of side effects including the possibility of inducing manic episodes that do not go away just by stopping the medication. My view is that if you are not near suicidal thought you should not even consider taking one of them. Psychotherapy should be the first treatment for depression without a doubt. Look at the epidemiology for depression and bipolar disorder. The more we are using these meds the sicker our nation is becoming.

  33. mmm123

    Open your eyes America. The effects of these legal drugs on your brain are as bad or worse than those of illegal drugs. And YES, they can be very addictive causing terrible long-term withdrawals that Big Pharma minimizes by calling discontinuation syndrome and/or relapse if it happens months after stopping the drug. Even those who have taken these meds for conditions such as IBS, migraines, cistitis, etc. suffer these terrible withdrawals with many becoming suicidal for the first tine in their lives. But of course, nobody studies this…People who have done cocaine or heroine in the past often say they had a relatively easier time detoxing from those illegal drugs than from antidepressants. The facts are out there all over the internet for those who want to look…why the FDA decides to take a blind eye is beyond me….just search ‘Prozac violence’ on Google and you will come up with over 4 million results! And no, it is no coincidence nor conspiracy theory!

  34. Joel Rosenblum

    Nature has the cure for your problems. Iboga is the name. Chew a little when you feel down or anxious. It reconnects your spirit to mother earth and humanity. Live, love, laugh, and down with materialism!

    • Michelle

      I have been depresses, and sought help professionally, then studied with the NIWH and learned that I had to take care of myself before I could help anyone else; so I started eating well, that is nutritionally, exercising at a gym were I would be with others, and walking my poor dog who I am sure got as depressed as I was. Now I met a wonderful man and am enjoying life again. just keep going, and realize you can best help yourself, and you must be with other people and do whatever it takes to be with other! Know that many of us care about you, too;)

  35. paul freshnock

    ‘Legal’ prescription drugs and ‘Legal’ alcohol consumption is the demise of our society. Reduce each by 50%, you reduce crime by 80!! There are too many hippocrates and takers in all levels of government to honestly make that happen though. Greed runs rampant! Sad 🙁

    • Glenn Ruley

      How much of Americans depression is self induced by overeating, making unhealthy food choices and lack of exercise? There are internet sites such as that will help people to understand everything from make healthy food choices, to understanding depression

      Addictions such as food, narcotics (legal or illegal), alcohol, nicotine, are ways many people try to use to cope with depression. But these addiction will only compounds depression. 12 step programs work remarkably well to help people to overcome their addictions and lead a life that is more joyous happy and free. (Ask anyone who is currently working a 12 step program about their state of mind now, versus, prior to working their 12 step program.)

      Americans are going to self destruct, we won’t have to worry about foreign enemies. We have become a nation where we expect a perscription to fix everything.

      Americans are grossly over weight, creating a huge strain on our medical system for all of the aches, pains, surgeries and general poor health that accompanies obese people.

      Why are pharaceutical companies allowed to advertise anyway? Shouldn’t our doctors know what we need? How much depression could we eliminate by eating healthy foods and getting enough excercise?

      Are their studies out there comparing the results of eating healthy, exercise and/or overcoming addictions through a 12 step progam compared to taking medication only to overcome depression?

      We can’t fix all our health problems by just perscribing more medication, especially anti-depressants. People will need to take better care of themselves, or we will all continue to face astronimical health costs, the healthy and unhealthy alike.

  36. Teresea LePeat

    Unfortunately Dave, this is often true. A situation that I often see is a parent bringing in a child who is misbehaving and insisting that he/she needs medication. The psychiatrist or other prescriber only has 15 minutes to an hour in the office with the child to make an evaluation. Mother, father or guardian then goes through a litany of all the negative behaviors of that child with the child present, (imagine how the child is feeling at this point). Often times a prescription is written. If an in-home therapists is prescribed, what is sometimes reported is limited structure, inconsistent enforcement of consequences for unwanted behaviors, unreasonable expectations or drug/alcohol use by parents. So in order to “get some control” of these kids who may not have serious mental illness, some well intentioned parents will turn to a doctor because their friend’s child is “on something” or they saw an add on TV. I believe that psychiatric medication for children should be a last resort and that behavioral therapies within the families be worked on first before a medication is prescribed. Of course there are children who have serious issues relating to mental health and trauma, but these children have disruptive behaviors in all environments. We don’t have long term effect studies on many of these drugs so lets not give them out like vitamins! Hope this helps.

  37. Clover Greene

    Just like brain targeting alcohol and illegal drugs, psychiatry’s drugs have the same mood altering methodology. At first the suppression of the feeling bad emotions from conscious awareness to the subconscious feels good. Just as alcoholics and illegal drug addicts, people become became addicted to psychiatric drugs — all the person needs is the pills. The person becomes an apathetic zombie. Just like with alcohol and illegal drugs, nothing escaping to the outside, underneath the chemical pressure cooker lid, in the subconscious, the suppressed emotions and growing despair from the physical drug damage builds. Psychiatry’s revolving door — the periodic exploding suicidal and homicidal drug rages.
    I did the above. After 31 years of psychiatry I was incredibly still alive. Then a male nurse in an emergency room told me to go Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘They teach people how to get well there.” It only took me six months in this 12-step program. I learned how to be a non-violent, loving, cognitive-perception adult-minded person. Born into the spirit, I escaped psychiatry alive.

  38. Laura Borst

    It is interesting that women have higher rates of antidepressant use. Women have to often been socialized to seek and/or accept “help”. I also think that psychiatry pathologizes some experiences and/or emotions that most of us would regard as normal parts of life. Now, feeling sad is pathologized as “clinical depression” and feeling worried is often pathologized as an “anxiety disorder”, to name a few examples. Also, Dr. Marcia Angell,M.D.( a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) authored a book titled “The Truth About Drug Companies”. In it, Angell mentioned how drug companies often alter data of the very studies they sponsor to make their drugs appear better. Drug company representatives have often given various gifts to doctors. The medical establishment in general seems to be biased towards using synthetic drugs. My mother told me that one person told her that he felt depressed, but that exercise alleviated his depression more than antidepressant drugs.

  39. WakeUp America!

    The article is a great expose,of the Psycho-Pharmaceutical Industry drug induced Coma, of the American Population.
    See: and do a google search, Psychiatric Drugs,Lawsuits, Settlements, for a couple examples, of research. Just look up the name of each Psychiatric Drug information available, on the internet and their adverse effects and Warnings.

    How really ‘Dumbed-Down’ have Americans become looking for that quick-fix ‘Majic Bullet’ drug that does not exist except for the profiteering of the Pharmaceutical Industry?

  40. James

    What puzzles me is that the largest study/analysis of the efficacy of SSRI’s, which was a “meta-analysis” of 35 separate published studies on SSRI’s (published in PLoS ONE in 2008) – concluded that these medications were just barely more effective than placebo, but not effective enough to be considered “clinically significant” other than for the most severely depressed patients. So according to the best scientific data, SSRI’s are really just placebos for most patients. Most physicians must be aware of that, but most patients apparently are not. So, is this really a good idea, when weighing the long term risks, side effects & costs of these medications?
    I appreciate how powerful the placebo effect can be, but this sounds like bad medicine, & wasteful spending on a huge scale. Physicians should be guided by evidence-based guidelines, & the evidence for SSRI’s is very weak (for the vast majority of patients).

  41. Lyndsay

    I was lunching with a group of women from work and I was amazed that literally everyone of us was on some type of anti-depressant. We all have pretty decent lives compared to most people in the world – I’m puzzled what is going on here? My doctor put me on Lexapro when I was going through menopause because I literally was melting down once a month and was in danger of destroying all of my relationships. It’s been a miracle for me – I fee like my usual self. But I’m not proud or happy about needing this to get through this period of my life.
    Lyndsay, webmaster @ improve memory blog

  42. Anonymous

    If we are talking about statistics we have to be careful.

    How much of the %400 increase is by more drug usage per person. There might be several issues: population growth, more competitive prices, better products, ease of getting the drug increase in welfare/income.

    By eliminating these factors, we can talk about the %400 increase.

  43. Larry

    Take a look at:
    We are setting ourselves up for true disaster.

    We are a country where normal human reactions are now a “serious”
    disease like diabetes than must be “treated” for life with
    dangerous and highly addictive drugs.

    Some portion of people on drugs are true depressives, but most seem to be people put on them during a crisis. When they want to come off they are discouraged “you need them for life”. Or worse
    they come off cold turkey. Cold turkey withdrawal often gets you a
    trip to the psych ward, a doubling of your prescription, some anti
    psychotics thrown in for good measure and a stern warning to never
    try to quit again.

    We’ve taken >>NORMAL<< human responses to temporary crisis, and
    turned them into a cash cow for the drug industry.

    It is truly disgusting, far lower than your friendly neighborhood
    heroin dealer. At least when you shoot up heroin you know where it
    leads. Patients for the most part have no idea what they are in

    Type "effexor withdrawal" into youtube to get some idea.

  44. Paola

    They have help me but if I’d known about the hangover effects of not taking it for a day I may had passed AND asked for an alternative choice. Talking about Cymbalta

  45. Mary

    They(doctors+pharm.companies) prescribe them to anyone who says they feel sad. Isn’t it normal to be sad sometimes? Do they want to turn people into zombies without emotions? And I hate that they do it to kids too!

    • Dave

      Noone is forcing anyone to use drugs. Its your own will be choose to be sad or get drug assistance.

      If someone is getting using drugs without a rational judgement then he/she is already a zombie.

      You are talking about doctors as they are evil. Do you really think they are prescribing drugs to kids when they need just to do what? promote more pharm. company products?

      I disagree with you.

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