Treating depression can be challenging. Some people may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly stop taking their medications, but these symptoms are a sign of physical dependence, not addiction. It’s important to discuss medication issues with a medical professional before making any changes because there are safe ways to manage antidepressant use.
SSRIs and Withdrawal Symptoms
The medical community calls the withdrawal symptoms from abruptly stopping anti-depressants antidepressant discontinuation syndrome (ADS). The condition affects around 20% of patients who abruptly stop taking the drugs. ADS symptoms are reported for several types of antidepressants including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and less commonly used drugs such as venlafaxine (Effexor), mirtazapine (Remeron), trazodone (Desyrel) and duloxetine (Cymbalta). The common thread for all medications is their affect on serotonin levels in the brain. When some people abruptly stop antidepressants, serotonin receptors remain hypoactive for days or weeks. This also affects other neurotransmitters that control mood such as norepinephrine, dopamine and γ-amino-butyric acid. Typical symptoms for the disorder include the following:
- Flu-like symptoms
- Sensory disturbances
It’s important to identify all symptoms when stopping antidepressants. While it’s possible symptoms are due to withdrawal from the drug, it’s also possible the symptoms indicate a depression relapse. Physical symptoms such as dizziness or stomach cramping are a good indication of withdrawal.
As a rule, people who take antidepressants do not experience addiction symptoms including cravings for the drug and the need to take higher and higher doses. Withdrawal symptoms associated with the drugs are uncomfortable, but they can be managed by slowly tapering off use over weeks or months. Symptoms are more likely when taking a drug with a short half-life (a drug that breaks down and quickly leaves the body). Drugs with short half-lives include venlafaxine (Effexor), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil) and citalopram (Celexa).
While it’s widely believed ADS does not indicate addiction, a Danish researcher believes her research does indicate people may be addicted to antidepressants. Margrethe Nielsen conducted a review of previous studies on SSRIs and benzodiazepines. SSRIs are a newer drug prescribed to treat depression while benzodiazepines are an older, less common treatment. Physicians and psychiatrists are less likely to prescribe benzodiazepines because they are considered addictive. Nielsen theorizes SSRIs are addictive as well because many patients continue to take the drugs even when they experience side effects and little to no benefit from the drugs. Lars Vedel Kessing, clinical professor and attending physician at the Psychiatric Centre Copenhagen, dismisses Nielsen’s claims. He says SSRI discontinuation syndrome is missing several important symptoms of addiction including: 1) compulsive drug cravings, 2) need to take more and more of the drug, 3) urge to keep drug taking secret from other and 4) inability to function socially or physically.
Dual Diagnosis Treatment
Since antidepressants are not considered addictive, they may not qualify for traditional Dual Diagnosis treatment. A person with co-occurring conditions, also known as Dual Diagnoses, needs treatment for an addiction and a mental illness. However, it is common for a person with depression to become addicted to drugs. Around 8.9 million adults have a mental and substance use disorder, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). Only 7.4 percent of people with co-occurring conditions receive treatment for both conditions at the same time. This type of treatment is known as integrated treatment and is associated with the best outcomes and long-term symptom management.
Need Help Finding Mental Health Treatment?
Learning to live with a mental health disorder is an ongoing process. While medication is an important part of treating some mental health problems, it is crucial for a person to receive psychosocial therapy to learn coping skills and thought management techniques. This type of therapy helps a person learn lessons that give her a chance to live a fulfilling life. Sometimes a person can start on his own path to mental health recovery by learning how other people have effectively managed their symptoms.
If you or a loved one is suffering with a mental illness or addiction, please call us today at our toll-free helpline. Our admissions coordinators help people find the treatment they need. We are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Do not hesitate to reach out for more information. Call us today!
 Warner, Christopher; Bobo, William; Warner, Carolynn; Reid, Sara; Rachal, James. (2006). Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome. American Family Physician. Retrieved Jan. 31, 2016 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2006/0801/p449.html.
 Harvard Women’s Health Watch. (2010). Going Off Antidepressants. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved Jan. 31, 2016 from http://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/going-off-antidepressants.
 Secher, Kristian. (2013). Scientist: Antidepressants cause addiction.”ScienceNordic. Retrieved Jan. 31, 2016 from http://sciencenordic.com/scientist-antidepressants-cause-addiction.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2008-2009). Office of Applied Studies. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved Jan. 31, 2016 from http://media.samhsa.gov/co-occurring/.