Understanding Your Mental Health

Is Depression a Side Effect of Your Medication?

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Nearly 60 percent of Americans take at least one prescription medication daily. And about 200 commonly prescribed medications list depression as a possible side effect.

So are the millions of Americans who take prescription medications inevitably sliding into depression? Not necessarily, says Opal Bacon, a clinical pharmacist at Henry Ford Health System. “These studies show correlation, not cause and effect. There are many reasons why people who are taking prescription medications may be depressed, particularly if they’re battling a chronic condition.”

In fact, NOT taking necessary prescriptions may result in greater mental health challenges. Poorly controlled health conditions are a recipe for misery — and reduced longevity.

The Facts About Medication Side Effects

While most prescription medications come with a multi-page informational packet explaining side effects and warnings, the vast majority of patients never experience complications. “Scary side effects like depression and suicide happen to a small number of people, and often they can’t be directly attributed to the medication,” says Bacon.

Here, Bacon explains which medications are most closely linked with mental health problems and what to do if you’re experiencing troublesome side effects.

Q: How often do prescription medications carry a mental health side effect, such as depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts?

A: Many prescription medications list mental health conditions as a potential side effect, but it’s tough to tease out whether the medication is causing the mental health problem or whether people are depressed simply because they’re suffering from multiple chronic conditions. And because the mind and body are connected, if your mind is not doing well, your body probably isn’t doing well either. So, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first?

Q: Which medications are linked to potential mental health concerns?

A: The link between certain medications and ‘mood changes’ are well-established. But not every medication that lists depression as a potential side effect will make you feel blue. Drugs that do have a documented link to feelings of sadness, depression and suicidal thoughts include:

  • Accutane (isotretinoin), used to treat acne
  • Corticosteroids, used to treat inflammation and arthritis
  • Anticonvulsants, used to treat seizures and mood disorders
  • Antidepressants, used to treat depression
  • Varenicline, used for smoking cessation

Q: How can people protect themselves from the mental health side effects of prescription medications?

A: Take time to talk to your pharmacist when you pick up a prescription — even if you’ve been taking it for a while. Your pharmacist is trained to provide information related to side effects, drug interactions and the timing of doses, as well as to answer questions or concerns about mental health side effects. Once you start a new medication, pay close attention to how you’re feeling. If you’re experiencing bothersome side effects, even in the first few days, call your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe an alternative.

Q: Any tips for people who are experiencing mental health side effects from their medication?

A: Many prescription medications come with an adjustment period. When you first start taking the drug, you may feel tired, depressed or unmotivated. Those symptoms typically level off after the first week or two. That’s another reason why it’s good to talk to your pharmacist before taking your first dose. He or she will be able to tell you that you might experience fatigue or brain fog during the first few weeks of treatment.

Keep in mind too, that if you’re depressed or having mood changes, sometimes lifestyle prescriptions like exercise can help. Not only is exercise a proven mood lifter, it also helps improve circulation, which means your body processes the medication faster. The caveat: If side effects are affecting your quality of life, ability to sleep or making you feel terrible, contact your doctor or pharmacist for help immediately.

Related Topic: The Physical Effects of Depression

Getting to the Bare Minimum of Side-Effect Risks

All medicines come with risks. So no matter what your health problems, it’s best to take as few medications as possible to keep you functioning at your best.

“It’s a delicate balance,” says Bacon. “Sometimes one medication can take care of several issues, so work with your doctor to consolidate your prescriptions.”

Most important, don’t suddenly stop taking your medications because you’re concerned about potential side effects. Some prescriptions require a weaning period and you need to adjust your dose down slowly.

You can learn more about your prescription medications — and how they might affect you — by talking to your pharmacist.

If you’ve had thoughts about ending your life, reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

To speak with a doctor about your concerns and determine which prescription medications are best for your particular needs, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Opal Bacon, Pharm.D., BCPS, BCPP, is a pharmacist with Henry Ford Health System, with a special clinical focus on psychiatry.