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Antidepressants: Uses

The main use for antidepressants is treating clinical depression in adults. They're also used for other mental health conditions and treatment of long-term pain.

They are a common first form of treatment for adults with moderate to severe depression.

They can be used in combination with talking treatments such as CBT - as they boost concentration and improve sleep. This may help you to engage in therapy. Your doctor and therapist will work together to focus on your needs. CBT uses a problem-solving approach to help improve thought, mood and behaviour.

Antidepressants are not very effective in treating mild depression. Sometimes they are prescribed for a few months for mild depression. This is to see if you experience any improvement in your symptoms. If there are no benefits, your GP or health professional will stop prescribing them.

Usually, you will first be prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). If your symptoms don't improve after about 4 weeks you may be prescribed a different type. Or an increase in dose.

Your GP can prescribe many types of antidepressants.

Some types can only be used under the supervision of a mental health professional.

If medication alone is not working, you can use other treatments, for example, CBT.

Children and young people

Psychotherapy should be the first treatment for depression in children and young people. This is for moderate to severe depression and it should last for at least 6 months.

An SSRI and psychotherapy may be used for moderate to severe depression in children aged 12 to 18 years of age.

Other mental health conditions

Antidepressants can also be used to help treat other mental health conditions, including:

  • anxiety disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • panic disorder
  • serious phobias, such as agoraphobia and social phobia
  • bulimia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

SSRIs are usually the first choice of treatment for these conditions. If SSRIs prove ineffective, an alternative type of antidepressant can be used.

Long-term pain

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are used to treat chronic nerve pain.

Chronic nerve pain (neuropathic pain) is caused by nerve damage or other nerve issues. It is often unresponsive to traditional painkillers, such as paracetamol.

Amitriptyline is a TCA that is usually used to treat neuropathic pain.

Other conditions include:

  • complex regional pain syndrome
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • conditions where a nerve becomes trapped, such as sciatica

Antidepressants are used to treat cases of chronic pain that don't involve nerves. This is non-neuropathic pain. But they're thought to be less effective for this purpose.

TCAs, SSRIs and SNRIs are also used to treat chronic non-neuropathic pain.

Antidepressants are also used for non-neuropathic pain conditions, including:

  • fibromyalgia
  • chronic back pain
  • chronic neck pain

Bedwetting in children

TCAs are sometimes used to treat bedwetting in children. They can help relax the muscles of the bladder. This increases bladder capacity and reduces the urge to urinate.

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

Page last reviewed: 30/09/2018
Next review due: 30/09/2021