02/27/2008 12:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth About Antidepressants?

Dashing by Google News before bed, I noticed that the usually careful Washington Post had ran a headline saying, "Only Severely Depressed Benefit From Antidepressants: Study", which I, can only imagine, will lead hundreds, if not thousands of people to get off their anti-depressants -- and probably for the wrong reasons. Time Magazine, meanwhile, has reported that "Antidepressants hardly help."

Both stories report on a study that was just published in the well-respected journal PLoS Medicine. But neither shows anything like what the headlines suggest.

Which -- and this is the part that gets me -- would be obvious not only to anyone who read the original study (which is available online for free), but also to anyone who even bothered to carefully read the news stories.

Does the Washington Post article actually show that only the severely depressed benefit from antidepressants? Noooo.

Does the Time Magazine article actually show that antidepressants hardly help? Noooo.

Does the PLos Medicine study show either of these things? Noooo.

Let's consider first The Washington Post's headline -- "only the severely depressed benefit from antidepressants". Um, hello? Does the study really show that? Four paragraphs into the Time study, we find the truth (from a reporter who was far more careful than the person who crafted her headline), "The researchers behind this new paper did find that SSRI drugs [like Prozac and Zoloft - GFM] have a statistically significant impact for most groups of patients."

That's right, most groups of patients.

The effect is, to be sure small, for many people scarcely more than a placebo. But most people were in fact helped, at least a little. As a much more thoughtful blog on the Wall Street Journal put it, "for many patients, placebos work pretty well indeed."

The Time headline -- "antidepressants hardly help" -- is even more misleading than the Post's. It might be argued that antidepressants are only of mild help for people who are only mildly depressed (with less room for improvement). But the current study, because of its sheer scope. provides some of the strongest evidence to date that on average (individual mileage may vary), antidepressants are a great deal of help to those most severaly depressed --- and somewhere in between for those with intermediate levels of depression. All of which is pretty clear if you pause for a minute and look at this graph of the results.

The real story here is not that the antidepressants are ineffective, but that the magnitude of their effect is (roughly) proportional to the magnitude of the depression; if you're happy, there's no point in taking them, but the more depressed someone is, the more the medications may help. Isn't that true of most medicines?

The lesson here?

When it comes to mental health, never, ever trust what you read in the headlines. If your health (or the health of someone you love) is at stake, take the time to read what's behind the headlines.

Gary Marcus is a Professor of Psychology at New York University, and author of the forthcoming book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind