THERE have been recent reports on the latest statistical attempt in a new study to justify the widespread and growing use of psychiatric drugs to alleviate the misery of depression.

The study, conducted at a biomedical research institute in Oxford, aimed to demonstrate the statistical superiority of antidepressants over placebo sugar pills.

It attempted to do this by gathering the results of 500 clinical trials, many of which were sponsored and/or conducted by pharmaceutical companies.

As with the researchers of the 500 trials, some contributors to this latest study have received lecture fees, research grants, honoraria and consultancy fees from a wide range of drug manufacturers.

Several large studies by distinguished researchers over the past two decades on similar types of drugs failed to show any meaningful difference between antidepressants and placebo pills.

“Statistical significance”, assessed by tick-box exercises, is a mathematical concept and, especially when the differences are small, it does not mean that the patient feels any better or that they are able to function as before.

This is perhaps the biggest misconception that this study fosters.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), the agency in England that advises doctors, does not recommend antidepressants in the majority of cases seen by GPs. It states that they are no better than placebo.

An episode of depression is one of the most painful experiences a human being can suffer.

People in this nightmare will consider taking anything that might bring them relief.

That is why we need as much information as possible to offer this group of vulnerable fellow citizens the quickest, most effective and safest routes out of their despair.

What is needed above all else is hope delivered by experienced people with a holistic outlook. There is hope, and plenty of it.

Antidepressants do work in 30-40% of cases but so do placebo pills.

The power of the placebo response should not be underestimated. Much recent research has proved it to be one of the most effective weapons in medicine’s armoury.

There is great hope in the fact that up to 40% of depressions lift in the first three to four months of no treatment, especially when the contributory causes in each individual are tackled.

Yet more hope comes with the knowledge that moderate aerobic exercise, a proper diet, cognitive behavioural therapy and social reconnection have all been shown to be highly effective and mindfulness meditation reduces the tendency to relapse.

What all of these approaches do not do is cause anxiety; agitation; restlessness; nausea; headache; weight gain; constipation; impotence and failure to orgasm; an increased chance of ulcer bleeding; more falls among the elderly; increased osteoporosis; and severe withdrawal symptoms when stopping among many.

These are the more common side effects of antidepressants.

There are other dangers that are less common such as a potential to cause mania and even an increased chance of depression becoming chronic.

If people have suffered the effects of months or years of the burden of traumatic childhood experiences; divorce; domestic abuse; unemployment; poverty; debt; loneliness; poor housing and so on they need real help, not the mythology of a chemical “cure”.