Why Antidepressant Users Have Trouble Quitting Their Medication

By Paul Fuhr 04/13/18

Patients are warned about the side effects of taking the medication, but most are unaware of the side effects of quitting.

close up of hand holding a pill

According to federal data, the number of Americans who take antidepressants on a long-term basis is soaring.

But while the drugs have helped millions of people with their anxiety and depression, the New York Times reports that many of those same people struggle with an unexpected downside: withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, headache, nausea and insomnia.

Quitting antidepressants after long-term use can lead to “discontinuation syndrome,” the Times reported, which some users say they were never warned about.

In fact, withdrawal symptoms had “never been a focus of drug makers or government regulators, who felt antidepressants could not be addictive and did far more good than harm.”

Now, many Americans who use long-term are finding it difficult to stop taking their medication—a trend that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

The number of Americans who’ve taken antidepressants for at least five years (15.5 million people) has more than tripled since 2000, the Times reported.

Almost 25 million have been on some form of antidepressant for at least a two-year period, too, which marks a whopping 60% increase since 2010.

And yet, antidepressants were originally only approved for short-term use (six to nine months), with no consideration toward long-term use. (As one researcher asked: “Should we really be putting so many people on antidepressants long-term when we don’t know if it’s good for them, or whether they’ll be able to come off?”)

The Times notes that there’s no medical game plan in place for addressing long-term antidepressant use: no guidelines, no ways to identify at-risk individuals, and no strategies for customizing solutions. 

With “long-term users just piling up year after year,” as one doctor said, the pressure is on for solutions. The problem isn’t uniquely American, either: prescription rates have doubled in Britain over the past decade, which triggered studies of withdrawal.

New Zealand, too, has found its antidepressant prescriptions at an all-time high, with 75% of its users complaining about unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Worldwide, however, the problem remains the same: patients who try to stop taking their Cymbalta, Zoloft and Lexapro can’t. In one study of 250 long-term users, 54% classified their withdrawal symptoms as “severe,” while another study found that almost 50% of users felt addicted to their medication. 

The Times also indicated that doctors aren’t doing enough to help their patients taper down from their meds. “The tapering rates given by doctors are often way, way too fast,” warned Laura Delano.

As a result, people have started turning to a method called “microtapering,” which calls for tiny reductions over a very long time (sometimes as long as two full years).

Media entrepreneur Luke Montagu echoes that sentiment, suggesting that the only true solution is for people to take matters into their own hands: “You’ve got this huge parallel community that’s emerged, largely online, in which people are supporting each other though withdrawal… largely without the help of doctors,” he said, suggesting that users may know better than the physicians who never saw the problem coming in the first place.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.