|New Signs of Hope for the Chronically Depressed
Psychiatry: Research suggests antidepressant therapy can help
adults who have struggled with melancholy for years and, until recently,
were thought to just have gloomy personalities.
We all know them. (Maybe we even recognize them in the mirror.)
They are the people who move through life with the weight of the world
Morose, sullen, angry, negative; there are lots of adjectives to
describe what has been typically thought of as just an unfortunate
Now, however, mental health experts are saying that many of these
people are chronically depressed. In the first major study to follow
hundreds of people who have been depressed for most of their adult
lives, researchers have found promising evidence that this persistent
melancholy can be lifted with long-term antidepressant therapy.
The research, laid out in five lengthy journal articles that have
appeared in recent weeks, should put a new imperative on treating
people who seem born sad.
"The message here is very good. Even if you've been depressed for
seven years, you still have an excellent chance of recovering," said Dr.
Lorrin Koran, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.
The findings challenge the popular notion that people who have long
been depressed cannot change. As recently as 1990, psychiatrists
could not agree on whether a person could have an intractable
"It was really thought that these individuals had a chronic lifelong
down-in-the-dumps personality that was their nature," said Dr. Martin B.
Keller, a Brown University professor of psychiatry who headed the
And, said Dr. Michael E. Thase, another coauthor of the studies: "This
used to be called 'neurotic depression.' Neurotic implies an aspect of
one's character. In the public's view, these are people who are gloomy,
pessimistic, the Eeyores of the world. Well, poor Eeyore probably had a
Chronic depression is defined as symptoms of major depression that
persist for at least two years. There are also two subsets of the
disorder: dysthymia, which is defined as symptoms of a lesser severity
that last for at least two years; and double depression, which is a
combination of major depression and dysthymia.
An estimated 5% to 10% of the roughly 18 million Americans with
depression are thought to have some type of chronic depression.
"Major depression is easier to recognize. These are people who can't
get out of bed or have attempted suicide," said Lydia Lewis, executive
director of the National Depressive and Manic Depressive Assn. "But
chronic depression is very insidious. People tend to look at these people
and say, 'Oh, he is so self-centered; he thinks about himself too much.'
Or they might call these people lazy or unambitious. But what it might
actually be is chronic depression."
* * *
Because of this prevailing view, people with chronic depression are
not as likely to be diagnosed or seek treatment, Keller said. The new
data should alert both doctors and the public that treatment is beneficial.
In addition, the studies could help doctors provide evidence to insurance
companies in cases in which antidepressants and other mental health
benefits are limited.
"We're certainly hoping this will lead to increased recognition of
chronic depression among patients and health-care providers," Keller
The study, published in several parts in recent issues of the Journal of
the American Medical Assn. and the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,
marks an ambitious effort by top researchers in the field to gain insight
into the little-explored area of chronic depression. Only a few studies
have been done on the impact of an initial course of treatment, and only
one other study has attempted to follow chronically depressed people
after their first phase of treatment to see how they fared over a longer
period of time.
Moreover, until the new study, there was no information that
documented how chronically depressed people fared when treated
with Prozac and other antidepressants in a class of drugs known as
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. SSRIs are the preferred
treatment for many forms of depression because they cause fewer
side effects than older classes of medications.
In the study, 635 patients were treated with either the SSRI sertraline
or the older antidepressant called imipramine. The patients were
generally people who had struggled with depression most of their adult
lives. About 25% also had coexisting conditions, such as alcoholism or
drug addiction, anxiety or panic disorder. Only 43% had ever received
any treatment for their depression.
* * *
The study showed that 52% of the individuals responded to either
sertraline or imipramine. Patients taking the imipramine were twice as
likely to stop the treatment because of side effects from the medication.
"Other smaller studies had hinted at this. But this is the largest and
most carefully done study of its kind," said Thase, a professor of
psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. "This pushes the evidence
over the top."
Another part of the study explored how these patients fared in a
second phase of maintenance treatment over 16 weeks. Of the 77
patients taking sertraline, only 6% relapsed after 18 months, contrasted
with 23% of the 84 people who took a placebo.
While the rate of recovery was high, the study did show that patients
with chronic depression need somewhat longer to recover. It's also
clear that the patients need to stay on the medication for at least two
"We've shown that a minimum of 18 months of maintenance therapy is
needed after the initial seven months of treatment," Keller said.
It's not known whether some--or all--people with chronic depression
will need lifelong therapy.
But, Keller said: "In the absence of data, I would continue to treat them
unless they develop difficulty taking the medication or unless they were
insistent that they wouldn't stay on the drug."
Click here to read about the most researched St. John's Wort formulation in America.
Click here to read about other natural antidepressant/emotional mood balancers...