Anti-depressants are one of the most prescribed drugs on the planet—not totally surprising, considering that one in ten women will experience some type of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But it's not just the high rates of depression that are driving up the usage of antidepressants; it's the fact that they're prescribed for nearly everything else as well. (Make sure you're aware of The Dark Side of Antidepressants.)
Just half of antidepressant prescriptions are actually for depression, according to a new study published in JAMA, while the other half are for "off-label" uses. The most common off-label use is for anxiety, another mood disorder. But even though the drugs work primarily by manipulating levels of brain chemicals related to mood, they're commonly prescribed for things that have nothing to do with our moods. Insomnia, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, obsessive-compulsive disorder, menopause, ADHD, PMS, digestive problems, overactive bladder, and eating disorders are just a few of the common non-depressive reasons that docs dash off a prescription for anti-depressants. They're even used to treat sex problems. (Fun fact: The new "female Viagra" was actually created as an antidepressant first and then re-branded after the researchers noticed its arousing affects in women.)
This surge in prescriptions isn't necessarily a good thing, the study authors caution, as these off-label uses aren't approved and haven't been studied, so we don't know how effective they really are. (By the way, Misdiagnosing Depression Could Seriously Mess With Your Brain.) Rather, it appears that doctors may see these drugs as a panacea for every condition that can't be pinned down to another cause. In some cases they're even used as placebos—a way to give distressed patients something, even if it won't necessarily fix their problem.
But these drugs aren't without side effects and can even cause great harm in certain cases. Recent studies have shown that antidepressants can mess with your morals, can lower your sex drive, and can make you more depressed or, in extreme cases, suicidal.
None of this is to say that antidepressants are all bad and that you should never take them. They can be life-changing and life-saving medications in many situations, and there's absolutely no shame in taking them (or in having a mental illness). If you're suffering from what may be depression, talk to your doctor—and you might even want to talk to a second doctor before filling any 'scipts. And know that there are science-backed ways to help fight depression that can be used alone or with medication. Two great options everyone can do right now? Exercise and meditation, which, together, are scientifically proven to decrease depression. And while neither comes in a pill, they're the closet things we have to a real cure-all.