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Study Casts Doubt on Antidepressants

In limited study, Zoloft and "talk therapy" fail to outscore placebos.

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Happy pills or placebos? Photo via

By Anna David

12/22/11

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There’s a story making its way around the Internet today about how antidepressants work no better than placebos. But before anyone starts tossing their Prozac in the toilet, they ought to consider the non-headline parts of the story. First, the details, which were published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: researchers divided 156 depression sufferers into three separate groups and either gave them Zoloft every day for four months or had them undergo psychotherapy or gave them placebo pills; they found that there were “no overall differences” in how those three groups responded.

But 156 people hardly makes for a thorough study. Besides, only one antidepressant and one form of therapy (called “supportive-expressive therapy”) were used. Also, those in the placebo group were regularly interviewed by researchers about how they were doing—in other words, indulging in a bit of therapy.

What’s actually ds or the placebo while white men did the best on the placebo and African American women showed no difference at all no matter their group. Only white women responded as researchers expected: by improving with either the antidepressant or the talk therapy but not with the placebo. How much of this is the result of the fact that African-Americans, based on a variety of cultural reasons, have long shown a lower response rate to antidepressants than whites while women, studies show, are twice as likely to experience depression than men and as well as more likely to seek help for it? Since four months isn’t a particularly long time to get over lifelong behavioral patterns, perhaps the white women were simply going into the study without any preconceived notions about how responding to a medication for depression would reveal that they were weak?

Medical professionals have expressed some doubts about this study as well. “Those findings are interesting, but need to be interpreted with a grain of salt,” said Dr. David Mischoulon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It would be wrong to conclude that psychotherapy doesn’t work, and antidepressants don’t work.”

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