Can Antidepressants Stop Working If You Take Them For A Long Period?

Research has cast doubt on the long-term efficacy of the drug.
How effective are antidepressants after several years
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How effective are antidepressants after several years

How effective are antidepressants if you’ve been taking them for a long time?

That’s the question many people are asking after a new investigation from BBC Panorama.

Reporters has revealed that more than a quarter of patients on antidepressants in England (approximately two million people) have been taking them for five years.

However, the BBC points out there is “limited evidence” to suggest the drugs still offer a benefit after that length of time.

Antidepressants are prescribed to people suffering from depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder among other conditions, and there are a million more people on them now in England compared to five years ago.

Research from the University of Oxford back in 2018 said that antidepressants do help some people in the short-term, but others may not see any benefit at all.

Similarly, John Hopkins School of Medicine’s website claims that symptoms return for up to 33% of people who use antidepressants, known as a breakthrough depression.

Psychiatrist and co-director of the Jack and Mary McGlasson Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins, Paul Nestadt explained: “Usually an antidepressant that’s worked for a patient will keep working.

“But sometimes, a new episode of depression might come up that’s not as responsive to that medication, or the medication might just stop working altogether.”

This might be down to drug or alcohol use, pregnancy, new sources of stress, or other other medications.

And sometimes, it might just stop working for no apparent reason, according to Nestadt.

He said: “I think it’s less an issue of building up tolerance and more likely constantly changing stressors and factors in the brain.”

Early signs of a depression breakthrough listed by John Hopkins include low mood, changes in sleep or appetite, decreased socialising, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

Sometimes, these issues can be resolved by changing to a different antidepressant or adjusting your dose.

If the symptoms come back for more than a few days, try to see your doctor – but don’t stop the medication, because you might run into withdrawal issues.

As BBC Panorama pointed out, this is when your body struggles to go back to coping without a drug. It can include low mood, and feelings of anxiety, but varies from person to person, which drug they were taking, and for how long.

BBC Panorama looked into the impact of SSRIS (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors) which have been used since the late 80s, which researchers still aren’t that clear on how it works.

There is some research that suggests it could increase the risk of other health issues like heart problems.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists updated information on withdrawals back in 2019 to show that coming off antidepressants can be severe and last a while for some people (possibly up to several months). It previously suggested it would take just a week to come off the drug.

If you’re thinking about coming off your antidepressants, this needs to be discussed with your doctors. There’s more information here on the NHS website.

The Antidepressant Story from BBC Panorama is available on BBC One at 8pm on Monday, June 19, (8.30pm in Wales and Northern Ireland), and BBC iPlayer afterwards.

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on