Depression is a pervasive mental health issue in the United States. More than 16 million Americans struggle with major depressive disorder, and that’s just one form of depression. The disorder can be debilitating, but it’s treatable through various methods, including medication. But are depression medications safe? Can they lead to an addiction that will just make your problems worse?

There are several pharmacological approaches to addiction treatment. Each of them has a unique chemical structure and affects the body differently. Learn more about these medications and their addiction potential.

Addiction Vs. Dependence

To understand the addiction potential for any given drug, it’s important to understand what addiction is. It’s also important to recognize the difference between addiction and dependence. Addiction is classified as a severe substance use disorder that’s characterized by the compulsive use of a drug despite the harmful consequences.

Addiction is a disease that mainly affects the reward center of the brain. Your reward center is designed to help you identify positive activities that help you find food, shelter, and interpersonal connection. It does this by interacting with key chemicals in the body that are tied to reward, motivation, and feelings of satisfaction and happiness.

These “feel-good chemicals” are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Many addictive drugs directly or indirectly interact with these drugs in a way that tricks your brain into mistaking drug use as a vital, life-sustaining activity. Once you develop an addiction, your brain will then work to compel you to use the drug again and again. Sometimes these compulsions get out of control. Even when you know you have a problem, you may not be able to stop on your own.

Dependence, or chemical dependence, is a form of substance use that’s often classified as a moderate or mild substance use disorder. It’s characterized as a biochemical reliance on a psychoactive substance. In other words, your brain has gotten used to a drug and has come to rely on it to maintain balanced brain chemistry. Dependence happens after long-term use of a drug or the use of heavy doses. Dependence can happen after a period of drug abuse, but it can also happen if you take a drug as directed for too long.

You can usually tell if you are chemically dependent if you experience tolerance to a substance or withdrawal symptoms when you try to cut back your use. Withdrawal may involve a return of symptoms that the drug was being used to treat. Dependence can be treated by your doctor and may involve tapering off the drug. In some cases, dependence may need addiction treatment.

Types Of Drugs For Depression

depressive psychosis

Several types of medications are used to treat depression. A few of the most common pharmacological options and their potential for addiction are:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Also called SSRIs, this drug targets serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical that depression often alters. Serotonin levels may be lower in people with depression. SSRIs block a process called reuptake, which is when chemicals are reabsorbed into the nerve cell that released it. Reuptake prevents an excessive buildup of chemicals in your nervous system. However, blocking reuptake can help increase serotonin levels in people who are depressed. According to the Mayo Clinic, SSRIs aren’t addictive, but they can cause withdrawal symptoms if you quit abruptly.
  • Antidepressants. Certain drugs are specifically classified as antidepressants. These drugs can include bupropion and venlafaxine. Bupropion is a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor. This means it blocks reuptake like SSRIs, but it targets different chemicals. Dopamine is tied to reward and motivation, which is something that people with major depressive disorders often struggle with. Venlafaxine blocks the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine. Norepinephrine is tied to stress and fight-or-flight responses. It’s also related to alertness and vigilances. These drugs may have some abuse potential, and they could cause chemical dependence and withdrawal, according to a 2018 study. Though addiction isn’t common, it may happen with antidepressants.
  • Anxiolytics. In some cases, depression may be tied to anxiety and stress. Anxiolytics like buspirone can be used to treat stress and relieve anxiety. Buspirone is a serotonin receptor agonist, which means it binds to a specific receptor and activates it. It has shown to decrease serotonin levels in specific parts of the brain while increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels. It’s not known to be addictive, and it’s reportedly easier to come off of than other anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines.
  • Antipsychotics. If depression is linked to other disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorders, antipsychotics like aripiprazole can help. Aripiprazole primarily interacts with dopamine receptors, and it also partially activates serotonin receptors. Aripiprazole is not known to be addictive, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned that people with a history of substance use issues should be closely monitored when taking the drug.

Why Seek Help?

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, seeking help from a therapist is a great place to start. Therapists can help you find ways to deal with depression, and they can address any issues that may be contributing to depression. Not all cases of depression require medications like antidepressants or SSRIs, but when they do, medication can be an extremely effective way to treat the condition. Doctors and psychiatrists can help treat depression with pharmacological methods. Take your first steps toward mental health by learning more about depression and how it can be treated today.

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