Antidepressants really do work, major international study finds

New research suggests that anti-depressant drugs are not effective in most cases. (Getty Images)

A new study says antidepressants work and the debate on their effectiveness should be laid to rest.

A vast research study which sought to settle a long-standing debate about whether or not antidepressant drugs work has found they are indeed effective in relieving depression.

The international study - an analysis pooling results of 522 trials covering 21 commonly-used antidepressants and almost 120,000 patients - found that all such drugs were more effective than placebos.

Acting head of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne Professor Malcolm Hopwood told SBS News the results were "reassuring news".

Professor Hopwood said the study showed that "all of the commercially-available antidepressants in Australia are more effective than placebos". 

"(They're a) helpful part of treating what can be a dreadful human condition."

Although he added that drugs were "not the only treatment available" for depression "and we'd never want to send out that message".

Professor Hopwood said many Australians still remain unconvinced about the potential benefits of antidepressants.

"There is considerable public scepticism ... (But) this study supports that for patients with a diagnosed condition of depression, antidepressants are useful."

The study - published by Lancet - found some differences in the effectiveness of the 21 drugs.

In general, newer antidepressants tended to be better tolerated due to fewer side effects, while the most effective drug in terms of reducing depressive symptoms was amitriptyline - a drug first discovered in the 1950s.

Some well-known medicines - such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) fluoxetine, sold under the Prozac brand - were slightly less effective but better tolerated.

The scientists involved noted that their study could only look at average effects, so should not be interpreted as showing that antidepressants work in every patient.

But several experts also said its results gave a clear message.

"This meta-analysis finally puts to bed the controversy on antidepressants," said Carmine Pariante, a professor at Britain's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience.

James Warner, a psychiatrist at Imperial College London, added: "Depression causes misery to countless thousands every year and this study adds to the existing evidence that effective treatments are available."

According to Beyond Blue, in any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression.

Professor Hopwood's advice to those experiencing depression was to "seek help".

"One of our biggest challenges is to ensure intervention happens early. We know that our chances of effectively treating depression are higher if a person presents before the illness has been present for too long or before they've had it on too many occasions," he said.

He said the first port of call should be a general practitioner.

More information about depression is available at Beyond Blue.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

- with AAP

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