Dealing With Depression In Retirement

The dramatic changes in lifestyle that results from retirement put many at risk of depression. And the go-to solution for those suffering from depression and anxiety are anti-depressants.

But have we become too reliant on these medications? Just focusing on those 60 and older, about one in five are using anti-depressants today, and they’re now are among the most widely prescribed of all drugs.

The makers of these drugs claim they are mostly safe. Well, they’re probably safer than many other medications, but they’re not completely harmless.

Some of the side effects of anti-depressants can include emotional numbing, sexual problems such as a lack of desire or erectile dysfunction, and weight gain. Some patients also report insomnia, skin rashes, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and gastrointestinal problems.

Furthermore, while anti-depressants are not reported to be addictive, trying to quit cold turkey could lead to a “discontinuation syndrome”, that is, withdrawal. If you suddenly stop, you might experience dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, and crying spells. So, while they’re not physically addicting, they may be psychologically, that is, users may feel they’re addicted.

Still, these side-effects are not wide-spread, and when they do occur, they’re usually mild or temporary.

What’s more troubling, from my perspective as a psychologist, is that MD’s prescribe anti-depressants as readily as they do. As a guess as to why — expediency, for the patient and the doctor. If a doctor asks a patient about their emotional state and the answer comes back, sometimes I feel a little depressed, the simple answer is, take this. Problem solved. It’s also an easy solution for the patient — one pill a day and I won’t feel depressed anymore, no need for long-term therapy. Of course, I might not feel much of anything else, but numb is better than anxious.

Their willingness to treat emotional issues begs another question — how much training do MD’s have in psychological therapy? The answer is none of any real depth. Consequently, the only treatment that a physician can actually offer for depression or anxiety is a prescription.

Now, that’s not to say that prescribing anti-depressants is wrong in all cases. Certainly, there are patients for which these medications are essential and life-saving. Researchers estimate that as much as 40% of depression is genetic — that is, there are chemical or neurological issues that predispose people to depression. Medications seem to make sense for these patients.

But depression is a complex thing that’s tied to environmental factors, such as poor sleep or nutrition, stress, illness, other medications, and traumatic events, such as retirement. Genetic factors may be a major risk factor, but genes and the environment interact to determine exactly how these genes are expressed. In other words, just because you’re genetically disposed, events in your life determine whether or not you actually suffer from depression. So, medications don’t necessarily make sense, at least as the first course of action, even for the genetically predisposed.

It would seem that a more responsible approach would be to recommend a patient try psychotherapy before resorting to a pill. With the right counseling, patients can learn various strategies for reducing neuroticism (a personality trait linked to depression, characterized by a tendency to be moody and experience negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, anger, frustration, jealousy, and guilt.)

The point is, if you think you might be suffering from depression, consider talking to a therapist first. With time and some effort, you can get at the underlying causes of your depression, and learn strategies for coping with emotional downturns. That seems to make more sense than masking your problem with an emotion-numbing drug.

Ultimately, you may find that an anti-depressant works best for you, and that’s fine. But that shouldn’t be your first, or your only, option.

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