Why are antidepressants the most prescribed drug in the U.S.?

Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac are some of the most common antidepressants. See more drug pictures.
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In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made an intriguing announcement. Antidepressants were the most frequently prescribed drug, overtaking the runner-up, high blood pressure medications, by five million prescriptions. The study reported that doctors racked up 118 million prescriptions for antidepressants in 2005 (out of a total of 2.4 billion prescriptions) [source: Cohen].

What does this remarkable surge in antidepressant popularity say about how our society now views depression?

Before the 1980s, seeing a psychiatrist was the preferred treatment for depression. But advances in technology have allowed new insights into the workings of the brain and instigated a growing interest in antidepressants. Now, even primary care physicians, not just psychiatrists, have become frequent prescribers [source: Lieberman]. Between 2005 and 2008, 11 percent of Americans 12 and up were taking antidepressants [source: CDC].

Antidepressants have the power to change your moods, and they accomplish this by affecting the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Serotonin and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters, which travel through neurons in the brain. Scientists don't know a great deal about how these neurotransmitters affect your mood. But they do know that when antidepressants alter how neurotransmitters travel, it stabilizes your emotions. To learn more about this process, read How Antidepressants Work.

So what's the reason behind the rising number of antidepressant prescriptions? One reason is that, despite their name, antidepressants are not prescribed solely for depression anymore. They are also used to treat chronic pain, anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and even eating disorders. Another reason could be that more people are confiding in their doctors about their struggles with depression. When you think of it that way, it seems like a positive trend in the United States -- patients are comfortable sharing the problem with doctors, and doctors are recognizing and treating it.

But the numbers also raise questions about misdiagnosis and overprescription. Are we too quick to throw a prescription at any old emotional problem? Read on to learn more about this debate.