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updated: 1/2/2012 6:09 AM

11 percent of Americans use antidepressants, study finds

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  • More than 1 in 10 Americans age 12 and older use antidepressants, according to a new federal study.

      More than 1 in 10 Americans age 12 and older use antidepressants, according to a new federal study.
    Photo illustration by Ray Meese/Ventura County Sta

 
Scripps Howard News Service

The woman leaning against a pillar didn't know more Americans -- twice as many -- take antidepressants than go to movie theaters weekly. She hadn't heard that a federal study found the meds are used by 23 percent of middle-aged women -- almost one in four.

But she knows Prozac.

"Good stuff," she said, remembering how it helped her deal with a splintering marriage.

Data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that 11 percent of Americans ages 12 and older used Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil or other antidepressants.

Women were prescribed the pills more than men, according to national surveys that asked people over a four-year period ending in 2008 if they had taken the medication in the past month. Caucasians used more than minorities. Younger people used less than people 40 and older.

The most common consumers were women 40 to 59, in which 22.8 percent said they took the antidepressants. Nearly 19 percent of women 60 and older used the medicine.

"I think it's a disturbing thing that so many people are feeling like things are bad enough that a long-term medication makes sense," said Dr. Josephine Soliz, a family doctor in Oxnard, Calif., who prescribes the medicine to less than 10 percent of her patients. "I think it likely also reflects the fact that sometimes mental health services don't really serve the walking wounded. It's pretty hard to get first-rate mental health services if you're depressed but not suicidal."

Antidepressants work by adjusting the supply of brain chemicals that influence mood. Prozac, Zoloft and similar drugs affect a neurotransmitter called serotonin and are considered much safer than earlier breeds of antidepressants, but can trigger side effects like sexual dysfunction. An FDA warning cautions of increased risk of suicidal thoughts for children and young adults.

Psychiatrists and other experts argue over whether the medication is most effective for people deep in the clasp of depression or just as valuable for moderate conditions. The CDC study said only one of three people with symptoms of severe depression, such as constant fatigue or thoughts of suicide, use the medication.

"I think that's more undertreatment than overtreatment," said Laura Pratt, lead author of the CDC study, characterizing the underuse as the biggest surprise of the study. "Two-thirds of people with severe depression aren't being treated."

Overall use of antidepressants rose nearly 400 percent from the late 1980s and early '90s to a time period running from 2005 to 2008. Psychiatrists and other experts say that tidal wave comes partly from the introduction of Prozac in 1987, followed by other drugs with fewer side effects than earlier antidepressants.

Family doctors started prescribing the drug for depression, anxiety, fatigue and a long list of other problems. A surge in television advertising that focused on symptoms like fatigue and stress connected with people in their living rooms.

About one of 25 children ages 12 to 17 use antidepressants, or more than one student in every classroom, according to the CDC.

Women in their 40s and 50s -- nearly a quarter of whom use antidepressants -- trigger the most speculation. Some psychiatrists link the surge to the symptoms of menopause.

Others suggest women may be more willing to seek treatment than men.

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