Why I changed my mind about anti-depressants

I used to take pride in being a high-functioning depressive. I was juggling a full-time PhD with working as a research and a teaching assistant while having a brain that wanted me to cease existing.

Until one day it wasn’t as easy.

Days tumbled slowly into months as thesis writing progress halted to a standstill and hours were spent in bed rather than in front of my computer screen. I dragged myself to my GP and she re-prescribed me sertraline, and I swallowed the pills and my pride at the same time.

I wanted my story to be different. I wanted to say that I managed because of a healthy diet and exercise. That I followed a natural and non-toxic regime. That I found healing on the yoga mat.

Quit sugar and you’ll cure your anxiety, Sarah Wilson has recently claimed.

But depression made it difficult to get out of bed, never mind cook, and it found solace in simple carbohydrates, dairy and microwave dinners.

The documentary Food Matters hailed niacin — vitamin B3 — as the cure for mental illness, eliminating the need for medication. Thinking I’d found the answer, I swallowed 500mg of niacin, resulting in a hot flush that consumed my whole body and ironically made my anxiety worse. But it’s promoted as natural — a food supplement, not a chemical that alters your brain chemistry.

Of course, that narrative itself is too simplistic.

Niacin is a chemical in the same way that sertraline hydrochloride is — and, as many people have pointed out, arsenic and other toxic substances are also “natural.” Likewise, the I Quit Sugar solution might balance your blood sugar, but it can’t erase the underlying cause of your anxiety. Indeed, if neurologists with PhDs can’t figure out the cure for mental illness, why are we so quick to assume that a former Cosmo journalist does?

I once believed that the placebo effect was a good enough reason to avoid meds. I was told that Big Pharma pushes anti-depressants on innocent people when sugar pills are just as effective. But the data is proving otherwise: anti-depressants are more effective than a placebo, at least in short term treatment.

I know the chemical imbalance theory has been debunked. Maybe medication helps, not like insulin does for a diabetic, but like paracetamol works for a headache. Not by replacing something the body can’t provide for itself, but by putting something right in a way I can’t explain.

All I know is that, for me, it’s working.