Antidepressants have a serious stigma, and that's a problem. At least in the western US, having a therapist has a stigma too. But you know what? It's time to get over it.
Psychology and psychoactive drugs have been the subject of huge doubts among even very educated people. It comes from a fear of something most of us know little to nothing about: the brain. Even people with an extremely sophisticated understanding of the chemical and physiological workings of the brain are eons from conclusions about how thought works, how we produce speech, etc. That's where psychology comes in.
Many people have doubts about the merits of psychological scholarship or the benefits of therapy because there isn't a lot of math behind it. Most of it sounds a lot like some guy's opinion, and let's face it, Sigmund Freud was on crack. But the field has changed significantly since Freud's time. Psychoanalysts telling people they have Oedipal complexes have been largely replaced by psychotherapists helping people live better lives by thinking better.
Of course, there's always your rogue combination analyst AND therapist, or analrapist.
Okay, funny time over. So therapy gets a bad rap, even though a lot of people—I'd venture to say most people—have an experience or problem that they could get through and recover from much better with the aid of a professional therapist. There are huge benefits to be reaped from caring for your mental health with a doctor the same way you would with your body. Nobody thinks you're weird if you go to the ER for a broken bone or a third degree burn, but people seem to have a problem with mental wounds that would cause someone to get therapy. You know what? GET OVER IT. IT'S NORMAL.
Similarly, we treat muscle aches, menstrual cramps, viral and bacterial infections, and organ malfunctions with medication. Often, these medications solve a temporary problem or augment the body so that it can function properly in the long run. Nobody thinks old men who take heart medicine are weird because their hearts don't work quite right without it.
But for some reason, when chemical deficiencies in the brain cause depression, anxiety, or any other syndrome, people have an aversion to using drugs to rectify the problem. Somehow the fact that it's going on in the brain makes people think one of two things: (a) it's "all in your head" and is therefore imaginary, and people should take control over what happens in their head and just get over it or (b) The drugs just dope people up, make them dependent, and cause a false sense of well-being.
In fact, a recent episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa began taking antidepressants called them "happy pills" and depicted their effects as painting a smiley face over anything that would be depressing. Lisa on "happy pills" was completely stupid and so out of it she nearly injured herself. The show is meant to be funny, but the truth is that antidepressants don't do those things and the fact that people think they do is actually harmful to our society.
Harmful? Why? Because when people have depression, they're at high risk of self-medicating and consuming enough drugs or alcohol that they will actually be more doped up and dangerous than people think antidepressants make people. Depression, left untreated, can destroy relationships and leave people dead from suicide, just because of an untreated chemical problem in the brain.
The things that happen in peoples minds are real. Brain chemical imbalances affect lives as much as stomach chemical imbalances. Just like chronic acid reflux can wear out the esophagus causing extreme pain, tissue corrsion, and cancer, depression can wear away at the mind causing more and more damage. There are simple solutions for both of these problems.
You can reduce acid reflux with extreme diet and lifestyle changes, but that takes time, and the damage needs to stop so the tissue can heal. With lifestyle changes, dependency on stomach acid inhibitors can be reduced or eliminated. In the same way, with therapy and lifestyle changes, over time, depression can be overcome. But the chemical imbalance needs to be fixed faster than that so people can think clearly enough to get help, fix their lives, and not suffer the life-crippling effects of depression.
To come: what antidepressants do and don't do.