NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The use of antidepressant drugs in the United States has nearly doubled in recent history, according to a study released in the Archives of General Psychiatry in August.
"Significant increases in antidepressant use were evident across all sociodemographic groups examined, except African Americans," Mark Olfson of Columbia University and Steven Marcus of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in the journal.
Antidepressants now are the most commonly prescribed class of medications in the United States. About 13 million people were prescribed antidepressants in 1996. By 2005, 27 million people -- 9 percent of the population -- were prescribed the drugs during the course of a year.
What might be surprising is that the majority weren't being treated for depression. Half of the people taking antidepressants used them for back pain, nerve pain, fatigue, sleep difficulties or other problems, the study said.
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Olfson said he expected to find an increase in antidepressant use, but he didn't expect the increase to be as large as it was. He attributes the increase partly to mental health treatment becoming more accepted socially, and he expressed concern that the medications are being prescribed casually, according to WebMD.
The study also revealed that fewer people who are using antidepressants also are taking part in psychotherapy. In 1996, 31.5 percent of those surveyed also did take therapy, but in 2005 that portion had dropped to 19.8 percent.
The study authors said the decline in office visits could be attributed to out-of-pocket costs for therapy and lower insurance coverage for such visits. It's easier and less costly to fill a prescription and pop a pill each day than to see a therapist regularly, some commentators noted.
The development of new antidepressants and more widespread advertising also could have contributed to the increase in use, Olfson said. Reuters reported that more than 164 million prescriptions for antidepressants were written in 2008, totaling $9.6 billion in U.S. sales and marking a boon for the pharmaceutical industry.
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Some medical professionals warned against jumping on the antidepressant bandwagon.
"Who's really taking these medications?" Eric Caine, chair of the department of psychiatry and co-director of the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center, asked. "It's not clear that it makes anyone healthier. That's a fundamental issue that we don't know. We don't have any way of telling if this made people's lives better."