Antidepressant Misinformation Promoted on Popular Websites

A new study indicates that popular online resources do not accurately present the scientific evidence on the risks and benefits of antidepressants.

Ashley Bobak, MS
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1785

A newly released study examines the quality of information presented on popular websites about antidepressants. The researchers, Maryanne Demasi and Peter C. Gøtzsche, found that a majority of the sites they reviewed promoted the disproven “chemical imbalance” theory of depression, and the risks and benefits presented were not consistent with the scientific evidence, as they minimized risks and overstated the benefits. The authors write:

“We found that the information about the benefits and harms of antidepressants on 39 popular websites contained information that conflicted with the scientific evidence.”

Informed consent, or being provided with information regarding the risks and benefits of a particular treatment, is crucial in the medical and mental health fields. Although the treating professional is responsible for providing this information, many prospective patients do their own research online before deciding whether to follow through with treatment. This research often impacts how the individual views or understands a particular treatment. When it comes to information about medical and mental health treatments, it is crucial that accurate information is provided online.

In an attempt to assess whether there is accurate information available online about antidepressant treatment, researchers reviewed search results related to “depression,” “antidepressants,” and “depression therapy,” on the most popular websites in ten English or Nordic-speaking countries, which included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and the USA.

Thirty-nine websites were ultimately included in the researchers’ analysis, all of which mentioned the benefits and consequences of antidepressant use. Yet, most of the sites analyzed did not accurately portray the potential costs of antidepressant treatment.

A shocking twenty-nine or 74% of websites describe depression as being caused by a “chemical imbalance,” or suggest that antidepressants are effective in repairing said imbalance. Yet, there is no research evidence to support that depression can be attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain. The myth that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance was widely promoted by Eli Lilly, the creators of Prozac, which was one of the first most predominantly utilized medications to treat depression.

Unfortunately, although this has been disproven, the chemical imbalance myth appeared on the majority of the websites reviewed, and is also reflected in the beliefs in the general population as well – 88% of participants in an Australian study were found to believe that chemical imbalance in the brain is the cause of depression.

This misinformation is problematic as it can encourage individuals to continue taking antidepressants, as these persons are operating under the assumption that their experience of depression is something that needs to be “managed” for the rest of their lives, just like diabetes must be managed through insulin.

This idea that antidepressants are required as lifelong treatment was a claim made by some of the websites reviewed in the current study. Some suggested that antidepressants may need to be taken across a lifetime, which is particularly concerning considering there are no current research studies that provide evidence that lifetime antidepressant use is necessary. There is no good evidence even to support that patients require antidepressants for 6-9 months, which is the standard timeframe for treatment as referenced by 56% of the websites reviewed.

Moreover, contradictory evidence was found throughout the website review. One UK website, in particular, claims that antidepressants can help improve life through improving one’s mood, one’s ability to take care of oneself, improving relationships, and increasing satisfaction in sexual relations. Yet, this same website also warns that potential side effects include decreased sex drive and a potential negative impact on relationships with friends and loved ones.

In addition to contradictory evidence, the researchers found that most websites neglected to clearly outline significant risks associated with antidepressant use. Only 13% mentioned the experience of emotional numbing, or a sense of dulled emotional experience, as being attributed to antidepressant use.

Most (29) of the websites failed to mention the potential harms of antidepressants use in pregnancy or suggested that pregnant women consult with their doctor. The majority of sites (59%) did, however, mention the negative impact that antidepressant use can have on sexual functioning, such as reduced sex drive, difficulty orgasming, and erectile issues in men.

Although twenty-five websites addressed the increased risk of suicidal thoughts associated with antidepressant use, most of them (92%) presented inaccurate information related to suicidality. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that suicide risk is increased for individuals of all ages who are taking antidepressants, only two websites mentioned this. One site even falsely claimed that the FDA has still not yet determined if there is a relationship between suicide risk and antidepressant use.

The Mayo Clinic misleadingly suggested that antidepressants can be used as a buffer against suicide and downplayed the harms associated with suicidal and homicidal thoughts or behavior, suggesting that they aren’t as concerning as suicide. The authors write:

“One argument for softening warnings is to avoid deterring people from taking their medications. Such paternalism in lieu of honest information is common.”

In addition to downplaying suicide risk, several websites suggested that fluoxetine (Prozac) is safer than other antidepressants for use in children. However, research has challenged the effectiveness of antidepressants in children.

Others have written about how diagnoses of depression in children and adolescents increased significantly following the introduction of Prozac in 1988. Prior to this, depression was thought to be highly uncommon in children, pointing to how mental health professionals have over time, pathologized normative childhood and adolescent experiences, such as moodiness.

Moreover, the researchers found inaccurate information on the effects of antidepressant withdrawal to be present on 46% of the websites reviewed. Most sites shied away from or explicitly denied the addictive nature of antidepressants, explaining away antidepressant withdrawal as merely being the body needing to “adjust.” Yet, withdrawal reactions to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), used in the standard treatment of depression, are comparable to benzodiazepines such as Xanax.

Although all websites suggested that antidepressants are effective in treating depression, all of them failed to explain what the results of antidepressant research mean. The authors describe how the results of randomized trials, which are used to assess the effectiveness of antidepressants, might have effects so small that they are clinically insignificant, or the effects might not exist at all as the trials have not been appropriately blinded.

Antidepressant research is conducted using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) wherein some participants receive an antidepressant, whereas others receive a placebo or sugar pill. Participants must remain blind to what group they are in, as their expectations can influence the outcome of the study. However, as described elsewhere, participants were demonstrated to “break blind” or identify whether they belong to the treatment or placebo group in 78% of antidepressant RCTs in the most extensive study conducted on this matter.

Further, researchers in the current study identified that the benefits of antidepressants were highly exaggerated, claiming that antidepressants relieve symptoms of depression in more than half of individuals who take them. The authors write:

“It is misleading to write that two-thirds of the patients taking antidepressants will recover or feel better because this reflects the spontaneous remission that would have occurred in any case, also in untreated patients.”

Finally, while 95% of the websites mentioned psychotherapy as an alternative or addition to antidepressant treatment, the information on it was inconsistent. Some sites touted psychotherapy as useful, whereas others claimed that it was effective only when used alongside antidepressants.

The authors point to research evidence that psychotherapy for the treatment of depression is superior, especially long-term, in the treatment of depression. Another study provides similar evidence, demonstrating that antidepressants are not more effective than psychotherapy in depression treatment.

The researchers in this study assert that psychotherapy should be the primary treatment for depression of all severity levels, citing how psychotherapy has been shown to reduce suicide attempts. In contrast, antidepressants have been shown to increase suicide risk in individuals across the lifespan.

The results obtained by researchers bring to light the large swath of misinformation present on popular websites regarding antidepressant treatment for depression. As discussed, this is of concern as individuals interested in learning more about antidepressant medication are provided with an inaccurate portrayal of the benefits and harms associated with antidepressant use.

 

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Demasi, M., & Gøtzsche, P. C. (2020). Presentation of benefits and harms of antidepressants on websites: A cross-sectional study. International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine, 1¸ 1-13. (Link)

12 COMMENTS

  1. “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” Those who push and force antidepressants onto others are seemingly fans of Hitler. And since they believe in the “chemical imbalance” theory, and fraudulently claim their DSM disorders are “life long, incurable, genetic” disorders. The only thing the psychiatrists apparently learned since Hitler’s psychiatric holocaust, is to change the word eugenics to the word genetics. And they are participating in a staggering in scope modern day psychiatric holocaust – 8 million people die EVERY year from psychiatry’s “invalid” DSM disorders, and their neurotoxic drugs.

    https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/directors/thomas-insel/blog/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml
    https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml

    No doubt, “individuals interested in learning more about antidepressant medication are provided with an inaccurate portrayal of the benefits and harms associated with antidepressant use.” Lies, lies, and more lies.

      • Yes it is. And it’s more than a “6 million Jews died in the Nazi psychiatric holocaust,” EVERY SINGLE YEAR, for decades!

        Presuming the head of NIHM is correct, this means the psychiatrists, and other doctors who’ve bought into the “invalid” psychiatric DSM theology. And prescribed people the neurotoxic psychiatric drugs, have murdered approximately 400,000,000 people over the past 50 years.

        I’m quite certain we are living through the biggest, all Western civilization, and to some degree the developing nations, psychiatric holocaust ever. Eight million murdered every year with the psych drugs!

        But the medical “experts” claim we have a Covid19 “pandemic” that has killed how many, doctors? No where near 8 million this year, from my research, doctors.

        No, we’re dealing with a huge attempted medical cover up of the staggering in scope “professional” crimes, and it’s all the so called “professions” who are guilty. One of my favorite recent quotes:

        “We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.”

  2. I suspect there are two reasons why the websites are so consistently inaccurate concerning antidepressants. First, drug company donations to the sites along with pharmaceutical ads. Second, the possibility that these sites copy information from each other, accurate or not. It would have been helpful to know which websites were reviewed in the study.

  3. “The Mayo Clinic misleadingly suggested that antidepressants can be used as a buffer against suicide and downplayed the harms associated with suicidal and homicidal thoughts or behavior, suggesting that they aren’t as concerning as suicide. The authors write:
    “One argument for softening warnings is to avoid deterring people from taking their medications. Such paternalism in lieu of honest information is common.”
    In addition to downplaying suicide risk, several websites suggested that fluoxetine (Prozac) is safer than other antidepressants for use in children. However, research has challenged the effectiveness of antidepressants in children…..”

    I am not surprised that 95% of society regurgitates information, that they “choose” to believe, but am astounded that clinics and doctors keep repeating the lies.

    I am glad for sites like this.
    Not that I did not know before I joined. I explored long before I ever heard of MIA.

    We know now that most of what we are told are lies. If they lie about one thing, they lie about everything. Most of the lies are closely related to cover-up. Always prepared with lies or half truths.
    Either covering up existing false information, ,misinformation, failing paradigms, or their own asses.

    • There is no evidence that antidepressants reduce suicide, yet these claims are still made wholesale. As for Prozac, it is the ONLY “antidepressant” that has ANY support for its use in those under 18, and the one study that supports it has been harshly criticized as flawed. But there is NO study suggesting it is “safer.” Where do they get these claims????

      • I’m reminded of the scene in Full Metal Jacket where Pte. Joker is being told to ‘fluff up’ his story about a V.C. corpse he has ‘seen’ from a helicopter.

        Capt: You must have seen blood trails? Drag marks?

        Joker: It was raining Sir.

        Capt: That’s why God passed the law of probability. Now rewrite it and give it a happy ending say 1 killed. Make it a sapper or an officer.

        Joker: Whichever you say.

        Capt: Grunts like reading about dead officers.

        Joker Okay an officer. How about a General?

        Capt: Joker, maybe you’d like our guys to read the paper and feel bad? Now in case you didn’t know this is not a particularly popular war, and it’s our job to report the news these “why are we here” civilian newsmen ignore.

        So I guess as far as evidence goes Steve, they must have seen blood trails or drag marks and are relying on the law of probability for their evidence. Now of course what your suggesting is making people feel bad by not reporting the ‘news’ that these “do these drugs work” civilian newsmen seem to ignore.

        New directive from H.Q. “search and destroy” missions are now to be referred to as “sweep and clear”. Don’t refer to them as “drugs” but instead call them “medications”, “clients” not “mental patients”.

  4. I’ve been noticing for some time how US medical websites purvey the standard pharma lines about “antidepressant” drugs, including the unproven statement that depression is a result of a chemical imbalance or genetic defect. It’s not hard see why this might be the case: Many of these allegedly objective medical websites, including MayoClinic.com and WebMD, are rife with pharmaceutical advertising.

    For example, I just checked the Mayo Clinic site’s page on “Major Depressive Disorder.” It includes an ad in a sidebar for Latuda, a neuroleptic drug sometimes prescribed to people with a depression diagnosis as well as other mental illness labels. These sponsor dollars surely exert an effect on the reader that reinforces the idea that psych drugs are necessary and safe, and help keep these websites in business. Follow the money.

    • It’s same old Miranda.
      I doubt we want their proof anyway.
      It’s not to be had because they manipulate their proof. And drastically forget about the chemicals being literally poisons.
      It’s really embarrassing to me to see how pathetic it all looks.
      If they are such scientific genius, lets see how they continue with real medical issues.

  5. Actually, I’ve suspected that something like that was going on. I do find it depressing that so many of these informational sites are actually pharma pawns- not good if you have numerous perceptual distortions in addition to being constantly depressed. Then you DON’T want to buy the sponsor’s product unless you think that hallucinating and bouncing off the walls is better than simply being depressed.

  6. I have to express delight that Maryanne Demasi is working with Peter Gotzsche!

    Her report on statins for our ABC-TV (Australia) was key in saving me from the devastating consequences of those drugs.

    Her report questioning the efficacy and highlighting the dangers antidepressants was before “Anatomy of an Epidemic” (at least in my world)

    Both shows were banned from the ABC, and Dr. Demasi has been disinvited from presenting on that platform, even though she was a delightful and challenging presenter. (The Aussie Medical Association didn’t care for her views much)

    The show where she used to present (Catalyst) is now lobbing softballs, “reality tv”with a dash of science. “Does flash-frozen salmon taste as good as fresh? Better? Let’s analyse this **scientifically!**” YAWN.

    I miss her hard hitting medical exposes, and to hear that she’s working with one of my heroes, Peter Gotzsche, is good news indeed.

    Keep up the good work Dr. Demasi and Dr. Gotzsche!

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