Antidepressant Abuse Symptoms and Warning Signs

People taking antidepressants can become physically dependent and resultantly take higher doses of the drugs than prescribed. Those taking antidepressants for depression may also self-medicate with other drugs.

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Signs of Antidepressant Abuse

Depressed manUnlike many mood-improving prescription medications, antidepressants don’t get people “high” or cause cravings. They work slowly over time to lift the user’s mood. Some people addicted to other substances may take antidepressants in an attempt to get high.

Those prescribed antidepressants for depression may abuse their medication or turn to addictive substances for relief.

People suffering from depression are two to three times more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Those abusing antidepressants won’t get any immediate effects from the drug, increasing the likelihood that they will abuse other substances while taking antidepressants as well.

Some general signs of abuse include:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Diminished appearance
  • Financial difficulties
  • Changes in appetite
  • Odd sleep habits
  • Slurred speech

The Dangers of Antidepressants

Antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft aren’t as dangerous as illicit drugs or narcotic prescription drugs when taken according to prescription. (Though they are very dangerous when taken in large quantities and can cause seizures, coma, or even death.) In fact, they help many people manage their depression and live functional lives. Antidepressants have become some of the most prescribed drugs in the United States. But they don’t work for everyone, and there are risks that come with taking these drugs.

Dr. Ronald Dworkin is one of many critics who believe too many doctors unnecessarily prescribe antidepressants. In an interview for CNN he explained his problem with overprescribing these drugs.

“Doctors are now medicating unhappiness. Too many people take drugs when they really need to be making changes in their lives.”

- Dr. Ronald Dworkin, CNN, 2007

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 14.8 million Americans suffer from depression. In 2005, as many as 118 million antidepressant prescriptions were written. In 2010, 255 million were written. Critics argue that massive pharmaceutical marketing campaigns drive these numbers. Antidepressants take weeks to start working and they don’t work for everyone. People with severe depression often feel robbed when they learn they have to wait to get relief. There are also a host of side effects the drugs can cause.

Possible side effects of antidepressant abuse may include:

  • Lack of emotion
  • Mental confusion
  • Sore throat
  • Shaking
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Blurred vision
  • Irritabilty
  • Agitation
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain

Research has shown that higher doses of antidepressants can increase the risk of suicide in teens and young adults aged 18-25. This risk even led the Food and Drug Administration to change the labeling on antidepressants to better warn consumers.

Anyone taking antidepressants or abusing other drugs also has an increased risk of suicide. Some signs of depression and suicidal behavior include:

  • Having no plans for the future
  • Giving away belongings
  • Checking insurance plans
  • Suddenly making up a will
  • Talking about life being hopeless or meaningless
  • Changes in mood
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Loss of interest in hobbies

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Recognizing a Problem

People taking antidepressants can become physically dependent on the drugs, but this doesn’t mean they have an addiction. These drugs don’t cause the compulsive drug-seeking behavior common among addicted people. However, addiction is more common in people with mood disorders like depression. It’s not hard to imagine that someone on antidepressants may be abusing other drugs. If antidepressants aren’t helping, a depressed person might turn to other substances to help them feel better.

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can exacerbate the symptoms of depression. They can also interfere with the effects of the antidepressant, stopping the drugs from working. If someone becomes addicted to other substances, there are signs that can help loved ones recognize a problem exists. Some of these include:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Ignoring personal and professional responsibilities
  • Using drugs despite the risks of mixing them with antidepressants
  • Wanting to quit or cut down drug use and being unable to do so

It may be hard to tell the difference between a relapse in depression or a co-occurring substance use disorder. However, if a loved one is showing signs of difficulty with life, it’s important to get them help.

Intervention and Next Steps

Many families stage an intervention for loved ones with a substance abuse problem. If someone is abusing antidepressants and/or other substances, an intervention can help them recognize their need for treatment.

People suffering from depression may cause harm to themselves and others during an intervention. It’s important to get help from a professional if the family feels like their loved one may react poorly to the intervention.

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Withdrawal and Treatment

People who want to quit taking antidepressants should never stop “cold turkey.” Suddenly stopping antidepressants can cause withdrawal symptoms like nausea, shakiness and fever. The best way to quit is by slowly reducing doses over several weeks with the help of a doctor.

When antidepressant misuse is detected, a thoughtful treatment plan, including referral to an addiction specialist, should be developed and implemented.

- Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, Abuse and Misuse of Antidepressants, 2014

Those quitting antidepressants should find an alternate treatment for their depression. Certain therapies may even be more effective than taking antidepressants for depression. Counselors can also help addicted people address the reasons for their substance abuse. A 30-90 day inpatient program may help for those with a more serious addiction. Inpatient rehab can also help people safely quit antidepressants.

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