Antidepressants: Wonder Pills or Just a Quick Fix?

04/08/2011 16:16 BST | Updated 04/10/2011 10:12 BST

As a therapist, I have worked with dozens of people suffering from depression. Many of these people have been - wrongly, in my view - prescribed antidepressants by their GP. And not just for depression: anxiety, paranoia, eating disorders, OCD, even insomnia are now routinely tackled with this powerful medication.

Earlier this year, NHS figures obtained by the BBC showed a dramatic increase in the number of antidepressants prescribed between 2006 and 2010 - up by 43% to nearly 23 million a year. The increase was blamed on money worries and job insecurity linked to the financial crisis.

Although this increase is worrying, in one way it's also encouraging. As someone who believes passionately that we need to remove the stigma from mental illness - until a bout of depression is seen as no more nor less unusual or embarrassing than a chest infection or migraine - I am pleased to see mental ill-health being recognised and treated. One reason so many more people are now seeking treatment is that they understand they may have a problem and feel able to ask for help. But why GPs insist on prescribing the likes of Seroxat, Cipralex or Prozac to every depressed person who enters their consulting room is beyond me.

Not only can antidepressants cause extremely unpleasant side effects, for many people they either offer little respite or actually seem to make them feel worse. Even if they do help, they only offer symptom-relief - antidepressants no more 'cure' depression than ibuprofen cures an abscess on your tooth. They merely elevate your mood and numb the pain enough to enable you to manage.

I should be absolutely clear here: you should never come off antidepressants suddenly or without consulting your doctor. This can be very dangerous. And although they don't help everyone, antidepressants can - quite literally - be a life-saver for some, especially those with clinical depression. Taken for a short period, they can help people feel well enough to seek, and benefit from, one of the many effective treatments now available.

Which brings me to my main point: if you are suffering from depression (or, for that matter, stress or anxiety, the other two major forms of mental ill-health) you need to tackle its root cause. We get depressed for a reason - usually because of negative, unhelpful, self-attacking ways of thinking that need modifying. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which I use with my clients, is clinically proven to be the most effective of all the 'talking therapies' - and just as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression.

As is exercise - a wonderful way to tackle any form of physical or mental ill-health. Cardiovascular exercise such as jogging, swimming, cycling or brisk walking has been consistently proven to offer as much symptom relief as antidepressants. For free. With no side effects. And no waiting for up to a month to feel the benefit.

The more enlightened GPs recognise this - offering exercise 'prescriptions' and referring people for talking therapies rather than simply doling out pills. And surely this is what all health professionals should aim for - not just to alleviate symptoms, but to cure the actual illness.

Call me naive, but isn't that what we're there for?