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For depression, changing personality with a pill might work best

December 7, 2009 | 12:54 pm

A new study suggests that if you want to chase away depression and keep it at bay, you'd do well to change your personality to become more positive, outgoing and friendly.

But such change is generally neither easy nor fast -- left to our own devices, most of us change very little after the age of 30 on dimensions of personality such as extraversion and neuroticism. But the study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry released today, found that SSRI antidepressants effect profound and rapid personality changes in those who respond to them. Compared to a group of depressed patients doing talk therapy and another taking a placebo drug, the subjects who took the SSRI paroxetine (marketed as Paxil) and reported some depression relief had more dramatic personality changes, becoming less negative and emotional, less easily discouraged or embarrassed and more self-confident and assertive.

That's a big claim for a medication taken by some 7% of Americans. 

Mental health professionals have long dismissed patients' reports of personality change as a pleasant side effect of depression relief. But psychologist Tony Z. Tang, lead author of the study, said his group's finding suggest it works the other way around: The changes in neuroticism and extraversion observed in subjects who responded to SSRIs appear to be what cleared the depression and drove down the likelihood it would come back during a yearlong follow-up period.

In short, Tang surmises that the drug-induced changes in trial subjects' high levels of neuroticism and low levels of extraversion effectively "shut off" the flow of negative thoughts feeding these subjects' depression, causing the depression itself to wither away. Lots of trial subjects who were given a placebo drug reported that their depression had lifted somewhat, Tang said. But those subjects' measures of extraversion and neuroticism "didn't budge," said Tang. During the year follow-up, those subjects were more likely to relapse into depression.

There's another way for depressed patients to make changes to their personalities, Tang found: His study found significant personality changes in subjects who got talk therapy, which aims to correct negative ways of thinking and equip patients with strategies to cope with setbacks. But compared to those patients responding to the drug Paxil, depressed patients getting cognitive therapy alone changed less dramatically in extraversion and neuroticism. And the less those measures changed, the higher the probability that depression would come back.

Researchers not involved in the study hailed it as important evidence that personality, considered 50% to 60% the result of genetic heredity -- played a key role in a person's risk of developing depression, and that it could be nudged powerfully by medications that changed brain chemistry. The big question is whether the personality changes wrought by Paxil -- or by cognitive therapy, for that matter -- persist after a patient stops taking the drug or attending sessions with a therapist.

-- Melissa Healy 

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Comments (7)

well, there are many anti-depression pills out there...

one thing i can say is that my pills made my whole teeth decay and cost me a fortune to fix whole teeth.

Who's going to pay for that? Psych docs?
Nah! they want your money for meds.

Antidepressants can be dangerous for some people, though.

The Physicians Desk Reference states that SSRI antidepressants and all antidepressants can cause mania, psychosis, abnormal thinking, paranoia, hostility, etc. These side effects can also appear during withdrawal. Also, these adverse reactions are not listed as Rare but are listed as either Frequent or Infrequent.

Go to where there are over 3,400 cases, with the full media article available, involving bizarre murders, suicides, school shootings/incidents [51 of these] and murder-suicides - all of which involve SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc, . The media article usually tells which SSRI antidepressant the perpetrator was taking or had been using.

Whilst it is extremely positive that patients being treated for depression have shown such great results from drugs, questions must be at what price to the rest of their health, no details of any other side effects were given and how permanentare results? It would be great if all the options available to people suffering from depression were examined as having genetic depression on both sides of my family and having lost 2 family members through this disease, I have personally reseached heavily and for my money, the natural healing shone through, have a look at and look at the work of, these methods have taught me how to overcome depression and negative behaviour patterns without damaging my health or having any side effects and is permanent and life gets better and better.

SSRIs, especially Paxil/Seroxat (paroxetine), cause loss of libido and sexual dysfunction and this effect is permanent in some people. Look up PSSD (Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction) through Google to learn more.

Who wants to lose their sex drive and who wants possibly permanent changes in their personality?

I'm glad that Glaxo won't profit from this anymore as Paxil already went generic (paroxetine).

I've tried Prozac in the late 80s. Even then it felt like a marketing push. I felt abnormal. The closest approximation was like I had "Ren and Stimpy's happy helmet" on and it was forcing me to smile.

I tried other medications including Zoloft. The pesky suicidal ideation went away but I felt so gd UNREAL. I felt like furniture or an inanimate object. Not a human being. It's the worst drug for depression I've been on. Everything becomes shifted to shades of gray.

Years later I tried lexapro (or it's isomer) and sure I was no longer fixating on suicide due to a relationship breaking up around the time I also lost a good paying contract job. The side effects were awful, I could not sleep worth a damn so I had to take ambien. I wasn't working fulltime so I couldn't afford to maintain the cost and the lack of sleep for days was possibly making it worse.

When it was determined I was mildly bipolar Lamictal was suggested. I was afraid of the side effect- a rash that causes death. Evidently it is so slow moving you'd have to be oblivious. Even though I received a sample pack I never tried it. The cost was at least $3 a day at the time after that ran out. I had no insurance or my higher paying job anymore.

The choices seem to have been tormented by depression, tormented by the drug's side effects, dead, or gritting teeth and getting through it by sheer will...which is difficult and frustrating. People would rather you be a "cheerful idiot" than real.

I think that because of the inherent bias against the mental health profession parents won't take their children to a doctor because they think it reflects badly on their parenting. "My kid isn't crazy."

Had I gotten therapy when I was teenager maybe I'd be a less miserable adult.

Paul Hunstad, get some self control - life's not about sex, and there are plenty of more important issues to worry about. I'm tired of this sex-obsessed culture we've created. No, this isn't some insecurity or confidence issue, it just feels debased and devaluing. Personally, I'd rather live my life for something more than constant, animalisitic personal physical gratification.

Rant aside, I'm not at all fond of the "quick-fix" solution we so frequently head towards as a culture. Only now are we beginning to see long term mental and physical effects from directed chemical alterations to mind and behavior. I think that psychologists have forgotten that some quirky behaviors are natural and that certain problems and conditions stem from more than simple chemical imbalances. I'm not ruling that or genetics out, as medications do have their place in helping those. I'm just saying that I think we're using something without fully understanding it and not really curing the problem. Using a pill doesn't make the conditions that may have caused depression disappear like magic.

Dear L.A. Times,

Let's not forget the most well-known and government recognized personality changes brought on by antidepressants: anxiety, worsened depression, hostility, suicidal ideation, decrease sex drive, etc.

People are instrinsically able to manage their lives and their personalities. It is only when they start believing in the Madison Ave. -pharmaceutical-psychiatric bull**** that they need a pill that they stop taking responsibility for their lives.

Who paid for this article anyway?

Steve Wagner


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