Alternatives to Antidepressant Drugs

Even though the movement is still small, psychiatrists are increasingly shying away from pharmaceuticals in the treatment of depression. There is a subtle shift toward supplementing drug antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, with treatments like herbs, nutritional supplements, meditation and acupuncture, as scientific evidence mounts for the latter's effectiveness.

"I think it is a backlash to the whole push for antidepressants, and I think maybe a reasonable one," says Dr. Gary Oftedahl, who contributed to the creation of a depression treatment program for the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement, a Bloomington, Minn., health policy group. "We've tried to medicalize depression almost to the point of not looking at the simpler things that can be done."

While almost everyone concedes that antidepressants have saved many lives, more physicians are concluding that there has been an over-reliance on medications, to the detriment of the fundamental doctor-patient relationship.

Dr. James Gordon, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, says antidepressants ought to be a last resort, yet they've become the front line in a chemicalized medical culture. "Many [doctors] feel trapped in a system that tells them their patients have to be on drugs [or] they're not doing their job," says Gordon, who leads the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington.

"The dominant issue in depression in stress. Why not teach people how to deal with stress?" he asks - through meditation, dance therapy, deep breathing, exercise, herbs, nutritional supplements and self-help strategies. "It may turn out that it's far less expensive, economically as well as humanly, to help people help themselves."


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