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University of Westminster research shows that patients fear antidepressants are a “dirty little habit”

Psychology 3 November 2015

Research by University of Westminster, along with partner Universities both in Australia (Monash & New South Wales) and the UK (Oxford and Nottingham), shows that nearly 30 years after the introduction of Prozac, people diagnosed with depression are still questioning the legitimacy of antidepressants.

In particular, the research found that people had worries about antidepressants that are akin to illicit substance taking (eg keeping their use secret, fears of addiction and 'going cold turkey', the potential for personality changes, as well as about the mind altering strength of the medication). Such concerns mean that some people experiencing severe depression reject or stop a treatment that might be useful to them.

Prozac and similar medicines have received mixed reviews since they were first introduced in the 1980s, with some experts believing that they may be ineffective for many people.

This research reveals that even before people take their first antidepressant, they are influenced by the controversial publicity surrounding the medication. For instance, everyone seems to have friends and relatives with strong opinions about antidepressants, including fears of addiction (although antidepressants are not known to be physically addictive, discontinuation can bring on distressing symptoms).

Being on antidepressants is frequently considered some kind of moral failing, and a barely legitimate practice in many quarters. Antidepressants are stigmatised, and their use can signal to people experiencing depression (and their friends and family) a kind of moral failing, or even something shameful.

Professor Damien Ridge, Professor of Health Studies in University of Westminster’s Department of Psychology, commenting on the research results, said: “Given our findings, it is no wonder people in distress find it so difficult to decode the social messages they receive about antidepressants. Of particular concern, those experiencing severe depression who are the most likely to benefit from taking antidepressant medication may think twice about using a potentially life-saving treatment.

“People experiencing depression – no matter how positive about antidepressants – are still forced to engage at some level with a range of underlying moral concerns about antidepressants.

“But a number of people we talked to were defiant about the bad publicity. One person said that their antidepressant was really just ‘a bit like Berocca, it’s you on a good day’, while another said, ‘I challenge anyone to live my life… without antidepressants!’”

The research involved closely examining 107 interviews (68 in UK, 39 in Australia) conducted between 2003 and 2012. The final results will be published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine, in December 2015 but are available exclusively online for preview.

The University of Westminster’s Department of Psychology sits within the Faculty of Science and Technology and has been recently revamped and relocated to the University’s Cavendish Campus amid recent campus improvements.

About the University of Westminster:

The University of Westminster boasts a vibrant learning environment attracting more than 20,000 students from over 150 nations and we continue to invest in our future with new developments, research projects and new ideas.

We offer highly attractive practice-based courses that are independently rated as excellent, many with international recognition. Our distinguished 180-year history has meant we lead the way in many areas of research, particularly politics, media, art and design, architecture and biomedical sciences, and our position in the city of London allows us to continue to build on our close connections with leading figures and organisations in these areas as well as in the worlds of business, information technology, politics and law.

Our commitment to educating graduates for the needs of professional life attracts high quality students from within the UK and around the globe.

Internationalisation, employability and sustainability are key elements in the University of Westminster’s vision for the future and we strive to ensure the very highest standards are met and maintained.

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