How do antidepressants even work?

In recent years, mental health has become a hot button issue. Particularly at places like Carnegie Mellon — which according to Humans of University has the third most depressed student body among American universities — understanding mental health is vital to having a sustainable college experience (and life).

Therapy is an amazing and important treatment option, but some people need something more. While medication is heavily stigmatized, it can be crucial to helping people with mental health conditions succeed in therapy, learn coping skills, and get by in everyday life. But what do mental health medications even do?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness explains that: “Psychiatric medications influence the brain chemicals that regulate emotions and thought patterns.” There are several types of medications available: antidepressants, antianxiety medications, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and stimulant medications.

Likely the most widely discussed mental health drug, antidepressants are used to treat clinical depression as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

People once believed that antidepressants worked by increasing the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that carry signals from a nerve cell to other nerves, muscle cells, or glands. These chemicals include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. However, the current theory is that stress can cause a loss of synapses (connections between neurons and other parts of the brain) that potentially lead to depression. Antidepressants are “now thought to work at least in part by helping the brain form new connections between cells.” Another possibility is that these medications increase levels of certain brain chemicals that help connections “form and spread.”

What is currently known about the literal workings of antidepressants is speculative. But what is clear from research is that while how they work is disputed, they do in fact work. If you think antidepressants might work for you, there is no harm in consulting your doctor about your options. There are clear accounts of antidepressants alleviating symptoms of depression; while they are not right for everyone, they can be immensely helpful.