WASHINGTON, February 9th, 2012 - Are placebos just as effective as antidepressants? It depends who you talk to, although trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong about this issue detracts from the vast gray area between. That gray area is teeming with the mystery of what it is to be a conscious being.
The placebo effect seems like a lock just aching for a key, on a door between who we think we are and who we might be. It is backward to look at the placebo effect as a shortcoming of man or pill when it actually hints at tremendous potential. Even the prestigious Harvard University believes it is worth studying.
Harvard opened an institute in 2011 to research the placebo effect. Ted Kaptchuk, an acupuncturist with a fascination for the placebo effect directs the institute. The Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PIPS) explores the once radical idea that placebos might someday be used as a legitimate part of medical practice. Who knows what else Harvard may turn up through their research?
First of All, Antidepressants Do Help People
Anecdotes about the efficacy of antidepressants are abundant. It is illogical to rely on anecdotes for the truth but it is equally illogical to dismiss them. Personal stories are easily skewed, but so are research studies. A former therapy client and current antidepressant user named Erin shares her experience.
“I put off going on medication for years but I was so tired of dragging through all my days. I didn’t think an antidepressant would help much, if at all, but I finally decided to give one a try. The psychiatrist said I wouldn’t notice any change for six weeks.”
“Two weeks later I did notice something though. It was very subtle and almost impossible to put into words. I felt as if I was being lifted up, not my thoughts but my whole being. At first I dismissed it, but the feeling persisted and over the next weeks grew stronger.”
“After being on the med seven to eight weeks, it was like I’d been treading water all my life, and suddenly I was wearing those inflatable water wings that kids use in a pool. For several weeks more, I felt weird because I felt good. The difference before and after the antidepressant was, still is, incredible and I haven’t had any side effects.”
Erin’s experience is in line with research revealing those with severe depression have a better response to medication, and a lower response to placebos, than those with milder symptoms. Erin said, “If you told me I was taking “sugar pills” I wouldn’t care. As long as it helps me I’ll take it.”
There are, of course, numerous reports of people with chronic depression who are not helped by medication; some say they feel worse on antidepressants and experience nasty side effects.
Riding Tandem: Placebos and Antidepressant Both Work
For a long time the placebo effect was considered a “trick” on the mind, or the result of someone’s imagination. With MRIs and PET scanners available, researchers now know that the thought of taking helpful medication can cause changes in our brain chemistry. These changes are not the same ones that antidepressants bring about.
It is possible, then, that pharmaceuticals work in tandem with the placebo effect and always have. The medication will have one effect on the body, and the idea of receiving treatment will have a different effect. People, because we are a mish-mash of variables, will react to both placebo and pill equally, or one more than the other, or one and not the other.
Emotion brings in the factor of intensity. If there is positive or negative emotional energy behind a person’s faith in medication, the power of their thoughts, or their beliefs about what is or isn’t possible, how much of a difference does that make, or not? Or, do placebos work better if we empty our mind?
In the world of mental health, people tend to make changes in thought and behavior when they are thoroughly and totally fed up with life the way it is. Frequently people think they are ready to try new behaviors but when it comes to taking action, it turns out they are not. People who are desperate to change usually do, and that desperation might influence how well their medication, or placebo effect, works.
All this makes sense if you accept the idea that everything existing consists of vibration, or vibrating energy, including thoughts and feelings. Then, it is plausible that a pill (which is a vibration) and thoughts and feelings (also vibrations) can both cause beneficial changes in our physical body. (If you don’t like the vibration explanation, you will have to come up with your own.)
Are They Inseparable?
Who can say that Erin’s symptom improvement was from the antidepressant alone? Taking an antidepressant did not take away Erin’s ability to think so it did not cancel out the possibility her thoughts played a part in symptom relief. Just like body and mind is an integrated whole, and you cannot have time without space, it is not farfetched that medication is partly physical (what we see) and partly not.
If you are struggling with depression or other mental illness, keep looking until you find a treatment that works for you. That could be cognitive therapy and gardening, or yoga, meditation, and an antidepressant. Making recommended life style changes is a good place to start. Learn more at Help For Depression.
Placebo versus Antidepressant, Floyd E. Bloom, June 8, 2010, The Dana Foundation website.
In Defense of Antidepressants by Peter Kramer, New York Times, July, 2011.
The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? by Marcia Angell, The New York Review of Books, June, 2011.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.