The Huffington Post
By Irving Kirsch, Ph.D.
January 29, 2010
Antidepressants are supposed to be the magic bullet for curing depression. But are they? I used to think so. As a clinical psychologist, I used to refer depressed clients to psychiatric colleagues to have them prescribed. But over the past decade, researchers have uncovered mounting evidence that they are not. It seems that we have been misled. Depression is not a brain disease, and chemicals don’t cure it.
My awareness that the chemical cure of depression is a myth began in 1998, when Guy Sapirstein and I set out to assess the placebo effect in the treatment of depression. Instead of doing a brand new study, we decided to pool the results of previous studies in which placebos had been used to treat depression and analyze them together. What we did is called a meta-analysis, and it is a common technique for making sense of the data when a large number of studies have been done to answer a particular question.
It is rare for a study to focus on the placebo effect–or on the effect of the simple passage of time, for that matter. So where were we to find our placebo data and no-treatment data? We found our placebo data in clinical studies of antidepressants. All told, we analyzed 38 published clinical trials involving more than 3,000 depressed patients. What we found came as a big surprise. It turned out that 75 percent of the antidepressant effect was also produced by placebos – sugar pills with no active ingredients that are used to control the effects of hope and expectation in clinical trials. In other words, most of the improvement seen in patients given antidepressants was a placebo effect.