Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants: A revision Guidelines

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Evidence-based guidelines
for treating depressive disorders
with antidepressants: A revision
of the 2000 British Association
for Psychopharmacology guidelines
Journal of Psychopharmacology
22(4) (2008) 343–396
© 2008 British Association
for Psychopharmacology
ISSN 0269-8811
SAGE Publications Ltd,
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi and Singapore
IM Anderson Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, Neuroscience and Psychiatry Unit, University of Manchester, UK.
IN Ferrier Professor of Psychiatry, Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, School of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry, Newcastle University, Royal
Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
RC Baldwin Consultant Old Age Psychiatrist, Honorary Professor of Psychiatry, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust, Manchester Royal
Infirmary, UK.
PJ Cowen Professor of Psychopharmacology, The Psychopharmacology Research Unit, University Department of Psychiatry, Warneford Hospital, Oxford,
L Howard Senior Lecturer in Women’s Mental Health, PO29, Section of Community Mental Health, Health Service and Population Research Department,
Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, De Crespigny Park, London, UK.
G Lewis Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology, Academic Unit of Psychiatry, Cotham House, Bristol, UK.
K Matthews Head of Section and Professor of Psychiatry, Section of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Division of Pathology and Neuroscience,
University of Dundee, Ninewells Hospital and Medical School, Dundee, UK.
RH McAllister-Williams Reader in Clinical Psychopharmacology, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Royal Victoria Infirmary,
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
RC Peveler Professor of Liaison Psychiatry, University of Southampton, Royal South Hants Hospital, Southampton, UK.
J Scott Professor of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
A Tylee Professor of Primary Care Mental Health, NIHR Biomedical Research Centre and Health Services and Population Research Department, Institute of
Psychiatry, Kings College London, London, UK.
On Behalf of the Consensus Meeting; endorsed by the British Association for Psychopharmacology
A revision of the 2000 British Association for Psychopharmacology evidencebased guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants was
undertaken to incorporate new evidence and to update the recommendations
where appropriate. A consensus meeting involving experts in depressive
disorders and their management was held in May 2006. Key areas in treating
depression were reviewed, and the strength of evidence and clinical
implications were considered. The guidelines were drawn up after extensive
feedback from participants and interested parties. A literature review is
provided, which identifies the quality of evidence to inform the
recommendations, the strength of which are based on the level of evidence.
These guidelines cover the nature and detection of depressive disorders, acute
treatment with antidepressant drugs, choice of drug versus alternative
treatment, practical issues in prescribing and management, next-step
treatment, relapse prevention, treatment of relapse, and stopping treatment.
Key words
antidepressants; depressive disorder; evidence-based guidelines; treatment
Other members of the consensus meeting: Dr David Baldwin, Prof Thomas Barnes, Dr David Coghill, Dr Christian de Bodinat, Mr Rodney Elgie, Dr Paul Gandhi, Prof Guy Goodwin, Dr Peter Haddad, Prof Tony Hale, Prof John Henry, Mr Andy Hockey, Dr Alan Lenox-Smith, Prof Brian Leonard, Dr Chris Manning, Dr David Perahia, Dr Stephen Pilling,
Prof Ian Reid, Prof Barbara Sahakian, Dr Shaw Sorooshian, Dr Clare Stanford, Dr Guy Yeoman.
Corresponding author: Dr Ian Anderson, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, University of Manchester Department of Psychiatry, Room G809, Stopford
Building, University of Manchester, M13 9PT, UK. Email: [email protected]
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
The British Association for Psychopharmacology (BAP) aims
to advance education and research in the science of psychopharmacology, by arranging scientific meetings, fostering
research and teaching, encouraging publication of research
results and providing guidance and information to the public
and professions on matters relevant to psychopharmacology.
As an important part of this process the BAP has published a
series of evidence-based guidelines for the use of drugs in psychiatric disorders, with the emphasis on producing comprehensive but concise and useable guidelines based on a review of the
evidence (see www.bap.org.uk).
This revision of the British Association for Psychopharmacology (BAP) guidelines for treating depressive disorders with
antidepressants (Anderson, et al., 2000) was undertaken to
update the guidelines in the light of new evidence. Every effort
was taken to make recommendations explicitly evidence based.
A consensus meeting was held under the auspices of the BAP in
May 2006 involving experts in the field of depression and antidepressant treatment, user representatives and medical and scientific staff from pharmaceutical companies. Presentations on
key areas with an emphasis on systematic reviews and
randomised-controlled trials (RCTs) were followed by discussion about the quality of evidence and its implications. Subsequently, a literature review together with recommendations and
their strength based on the level of evidence were circulated to
participants, user groups and other interested parties for feedback, which was incorporated into the final version of these
Identification of relevant evidence
The breadth of information covered in these guidelines did not
allow for a systematic review of all possible data from primary
sources. Major systematic reviews and RCTs were identified
from MEDLINE and EMBASE searches, and from the
Cochrane Database as well as from previous guidelines (e.g.
American Psychiatric Association, 2000a; National Institute
for Clinical Excellence, 2004; Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Clinical Practice Guidelines Team
for Depression, 2004; Bauer, et al., 2007), cross referencing and
identification by experts in the field.
Presentation of data, levels of evidence and strength
of recommendations
We have tried, where possible, to present effect sizes or numbers needed to treat or harm (NNT or NNH) to aid interpretation of the magnitude of effect seen. As a rough guide it has
been suggested that effect sizes of 0.2, 0.5 and 0.8 reflect small,
medium and large effects, respectively (Cohen, 1988). NNTs of
five or fewer are likely to be clinically important, and those
above 10 unlikely to be so in initial phases of treatment. Larger
NNTs may, however, be clinically relevant in the context of
more severe and/or treatment-resistant depression. Therefore
the assessment of clinical significance depends on context and
this needs to be judged in individual situations. In addition, the
outcome measures used are ratings of depressive symptoms,
which only capture a part the clinical condition. A further
problem is that patients entered into clinical trials are not representative of patients seen in routine practice (Zimmerman, et
al., 2002; Zimmerman, et al., 2005). This reminds us that the
effect size estimates from RCTs have limitations in their generalisability and their interpretation requires caution. Statistical
significance is taken as p<0.05; for simplicity and space considerations we do not give 95% confidence intervals.
Categories of evidence for causal relationships and strength
of recommendations are provided in Table 1. They have been
developed from Shekelle, et al. (1999) and have been modified
slightly from previous BAP guidelines to reflect uncertainties
around results from small and non-replicated RCTs. There
are no generally agreed categories for non-causal evidence
and we have not routinely graded this evidence but, if appropriate, we have done so as outlined in Table 1. We have also
included a category for standard of care (S) relating to good
clinical practice.
It is very important to emphasise that the strength of a recommendation reflects the quality of the evidence on which it is
based, not upon its clinical importance, and weaker levels of
recommendation often cover vital practical issues. The principal recommendations apply to the management of ‘typical’
patients, and therefore can be expected to apply much of the
time; for this reason we use expressions such as ‘should consider…’ in the recommendations. We accept that, for many
patients and for many clinical decisions, unthinking adherence
to treatment recommendations may be potentially harmful. In
situations where the evidence is weaker we use phrases such as
‘could consider…’ or ‘options include…’ as implementation
will depend upon clinician experience, patient clinical features
and preference, and local circumstance (Haynes, et al., 2002).
Standards of clinical care are intended always to be applied.
Scope and target of the guidelines
These guidelines are primarily concerned with the use of antidepressant drugs to treat the most common (unipolar) depressive disorders in adults and do not cover depression occurring
in bipolar affective (manic-depressive) disorder, which are covered by another BAP guideline (Goodwin, 2003). We consider
the place of antidepressants within the range of treatments
available for depression. We also consider how the guidelines
apply in special situations, such as depression in children, adolescents and the elderly, in the context of medical illness, pregnancy and the postnatal period and when accompanied by psy-
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Table 1
Categories of evidence and strength of recommendationa
Categories of evidence for causal relationships and treatment
I: Evidence from meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials*, at least one large, good quality, randomised controlled trial* or replicated, smaller,
randomised controlled trials*
II: Evidence from small, non-replicated, randomised controlled trials*, at least one controlled study without randomisation or evidence from at least one
other type of quasi-experimental study
III: Evidence from non-experimental descriptive studies, such as uncontrolled, comparative, correlation and case-control studies
IV: Evidence from expert committee reports or opinions and/or clinical experience of respected authorities
Proposed categories of evidence for non-causal relationships
I: Evidence from large representative population samples
II: Evidence from small, well designed, but not necessarily representative samples
III: Evidence from non-representative surveys, case reports
IV: Evidence from expert committee reports or opinions and/or clinical experience of respected authorities
Strength of recommendation
A Directly based on category I evidence
B Directly based on category II evidence or extrapolated# recommendation from category I evidence
C Directly based on category III evidence or extrapolated# recommendation from category I or II evidence
D Directly based on category IV evidence or extrapolated# recommendation from category I, II or III evidence
S Standard of good practice
aDeveloped from Shekelle, et al., 1999
*Randomised controlled trials must have an appropriate control treatment arm; for primary efficacy this should include a placebo condition.
#Extrapolation may be necessary because of evidence that is only indirectly related, covers only a part or the area of practice under consideration, has
methodological problems or is contradictory.
chotic symptoms, but these are not comprehensive guidelines
for these situations.
The content of these guidelines is relevant for all doctors
seeing and treating patients with depressive disorders; in most
cases these will be doctors who are not specialists in psychiatry,
usually general practitioners (primary care physicians). We recognise that the detail required in reviewing evidence and producing specific recommendations can result in advice of complexity and length that is not useful in everyday practice.
Therefore, we present the recommendations separately from
the evidence as a stand-alone resource.
1. Diagnosis, detection and service delivery
All clinicians should have a working knowledge of the criteria for major depression (DSM-IV; equivalent to ICD-10
moderate or severe depressive episode, i.e. 5 or more
depressive symptoms) (S) and routinely determine the
severity and duration of depressive symptoms (A). For the
purposes of this guideline four grades of severity are used:
◦ subthreshold depression – significant depressive symptoms below the threshold for DSM-IV major depression, including ICD-10 mild depressive episode with
only four symptoms;
◦ mild major depression – symptoms barely meet the
minimum criteria and mild functional impairment;
◦ moderate major depression – more than minimum
number of symptoms and moderate functional
◦ severe major depression – most symptoms are present
and marked or greater functional impairment.
Non-targeted screening for depression using single-stage
screening questions or questionnaires should not be used
in primary care (A). However, consider targeted screening
in groups at high risk of depression (D).
Routinely check for a history of hypomania or mania in
patients diagnosed with depression (S).
Treatment of major depression with antidepressants in primary care should be in the context of case management to
improve outcomes (A). At the minimum this should
◦ scheduled follow up (A),
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
◦ a strategy to enhance adherence to medication (B).
Referral to psychiatric services should occur if there:
◦ is a significant perceived risk of suicide, of harm to
others or of severe self-neglect (S),
◦ are psychotic symptoms (S),
◦ is a history of, or likelihood of, bipolar affective disorder (S).
Consultation with, or referral to, a psychiatrist (or a specialist in the treatment of affective disorders), is appropriate:
◦ when the general practitioner feels insufficiently experienced to assess or manage a patient’s condition (S),
◦ if two or more attempts to treat a patient’s depressive
disorder with medication have failed, or resulted in
insufficient response (S).
Treatment of depression in specialist psychiatric care
should use a systematic approach implementing evidencebased guidelines with standardised assessments and critical
decision points to improve outcomes (B).
2. Acute treatment
2.1 Indications for antidepressants
Determine the duration and severity of depression to guide
treatment choice (A).
Antidepressants are a first line treatment for:
◦ moderate and severe major depression in adults irrespective of environmental factors and depression type
◦ subthreshold depression that has persisted for 2 years or
more (A).
Antidepressants are a treatment option in short duration
mild major depression in adults (B) and should be considered if there is a prior history of moderate to severe recurrent depression (D) or the depression persists for more than
2–3 months (D).
Antidepressants are not a first line treatment for:
◦ short duration subthreshold depression in adults (A)
but should be considered if the depression persists for
more than 2–3 months (C), or there is a prior history
of moderate to severe recurrent depression (D),
◦ major depression in children and adolescents (B) but
should be considered when other treatment has failed
(A) or there is a history of moderate to severe recurrent
depression (D).
When antidepressants are not used as first line treatment
the minimum management should include structured
follow-up and active monitoring of symptoms (S).
2.2 Alternatives to antidepressants for acute treatment
Choice between drug and non-drug treatments for depression should be informed by the evidence base, individual
patient characteristics and choice, and treatment availability, (S).
Psychological and behavioural treatments
Psychological and behavioural treatments should be administered by appropriately trained practitioners with fidelity
to techniques showing evidence-based efficacy (S).
For major depression of mild to moderate severity:
◦ cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) (A), behaviour therapy/activity scheduling (BT/AS) (A) and interpersonal
psychotherapy (IPT) (A) are alternatives to antidepressants in acute treatment,
◦ CBT is recommended if psychological treatment is used
as monotherapy for recurrent depression (B).
For severe major depression:
◦ psychological or behavioural treatment is not recommended as sole therapy (B) but routinely consider adding CBT (A) or BT/AS (B) to antidepressant treatment,
◦ therapists using psychological and behavioural techniques should be experienced in treating depression (B).
For major depression in children and adolescents:
◦ consider CBT for those not responding to initial structured supportive treatment (B),
◦ the choice between CBT and an SSRI in adolescents
should be based on individual assessment and availability of treatments (D),
◦ combining CBT with an SSRI is not recommended routinely as first line treatment for adolescents (B).
Guided self-help treatments:
◦ computerised CBT and guided bibliotherapy based on
CBT principles are not recommended as routine primary treatments for major depression in clinical populations (B),
◦ they could be considered for self-motivated individuals
with mild to moderate major depression (B) or as an
adjunct to antidepressant treatment (D).
Supervised high intensity exercise:
◦ is not a first line alternative to antidepressant treatment
for major depression (D),
◦ could be considered as an adjunct to other antidepressive treatments (C).
Physical treatments
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT):
◦ should be considered as a first line treatment for severe
major depression in the emergency situation (e.g. not
eating or drinking, depressive stupor, extreme distress,
suicidality) (B). Bilateral ECT is the treatment of choice
in such circumstances (B),
◦ is not recommended as a first line treatment for depression in non-urgent circumstances (B),
◦ should be considered for treating major depression
where first line treatments are not possible or feasible
(A) after considering the risk-benefit balance, taking
into account depression severity (including psychotic
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
features) and degree of disability. Consider unilateral
ECT initially to minimise adverse cognitive effects (B),
◦ should be followed by effective prophylaxis to prevent
depressive relapse (A); consider an antidepressant either
as monotherapy or combined with lithium (B).
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS):
◦ is not recommended as a first line treatment for major
depression (D),
◦ could be considered for situations where first line treatments are not possible or feasible (B); it should only be
administered by an experienced centre as part of a clinical trial or with structured outcome evaluation (S).
◦ should be followed by effective prophylaxis to prevent
depressive relapse (D).
Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is not recommended as a
first line treatment for depression (D) since available data
only relate to treatment-resistant, mostly chronic, major
Light therapy:
◦ is a first line treatment for the acute treatment of seasonal autumn/winter major depression (seasonal affective disorder) (A) but effective prophylaxis against
relapse is then needed, including consideration of an
antidepressant (B).
◦ is not a first line alternative to antidepressants for nonseasonal major depression (D) but could be considered
if first line treatments are not feasible or tolerated (C).
◦ routinely combining light therapy with antidepressants
is not recommended (A).
Complementary and other treatments
Hypericum extracts (St John’s Wort):
◦ are not recommended as a first line treatment for
depression (D) given only preliminary medium-term
data and lack of longer-term and relapse-prevention
◦ could be considered for mild and moderate major
depression where first line treatments are not possible
or not tolerated (A) provided a recognised standardised
preparation is used.
Omega-3 fatty acids are not recommended as a monotherapy treatment for major depression (B).
Match choice of antidepressant drug to individual patient
requirements as far as possible, taking into account likely
short-term and long-term effects (S) (Table 5).
In the absence of special factors, choose antidepressants
that are better tolerated and safer in overdose (S). There
is most evidence for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
(SSRIs), which, together with other newer antidepressants,
are first line choices (D).
Older tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) should be reserved
for situations when first line drug treatment has failed (D)
as should older monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
(D). MAOIs should only be initiated by practitioners with
expertise in treating mood disorders (D).
In more severely ill patients, and in other situations where
maximising efficacy is of overriding importance, consider
an older TCA, venlafaxine (≥ 150 mg) or escitalopram (20
mg) in preference to another SSRI (C) or MAOI (C).
In psychotic depression combine an antidepressant with an
antipsychotic initially in preference to treating with an antidepressant alone (D); do not use an antipsychotic alone (A).
Factors to consider in choosing an antidepressant include:
◦ patient preference (B),
◦ associated psychiatric disorder that may specifically
respond to a particular class of antidepressant (e.g.
obsessive compulsive disorder and serotonin reuptake
inhibitors) (B),
◦ previous treatment response to a particular drug (D),
◦ tolerability and adverse effects of a previously given
drug (D),
◦ likely side effect profile (e.g. sedation, sexual side
effects, weight gain) (C),
◦ low lethality in overdose if history or likelihood of overdose (D),
◦ concurrent medical illness or condition that may make the
antidepressant more noxious or less well tolerated (C),
◦ concurrent medication that may interact with the antidepressant drug (C),
◦ a family history of differential antidepressant response
if choosing between a TCA and MAOI (C).
2.4 Practical issues in acute management
2.3 Choice of antidepressant drug
Initially review patients every one to two weeks following
commencement of antidepressant treatment and thereafter
according to clinical situation and patient need (S). Telephone consultation and the use of suitably trained nonmedical staff may appropriately take the place of some
medical consultations (B).
Educate patients about the nature of depressive disorders, the
possibility of worsening or emerging suicidal thoughts, possible side effects and benefits of medication, likely duration of
treatment, problems associated with stopping medication (S).
At each review assess response, adherance to drug treatment, side effects and suicidal risk (S). The use of simple,
standardised, rating scales is recommended (B). Be aware
that lack of significant improvement after 2–4 weeks treatment substantially reduces the probability of eventual sustained response (A).
Consider limiting the total amount of antidepressant drug
available to the patient (especially if from a more toxic
class) to reduce the risk of death/medical complications if
taken in overdose (D).
When prescribing an older TCA, or a drug requiring dose
titration, increase the dose every 3–7 days to allow adjustment to side effects (C).
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Aim for a target dose for which there is established efficacy
taking into account age and medical comorbidity (S). The
target dose of TCAs is an imipramine dose-equivalence of
≥ 125 mg if tolerated (D).
If a patient has responded to a lower than target dose of an
antidepressant still increase the dose to one of established
efficacy, if possible, to reduce the likelihood of relapse in
continuation treatment (C). Where this is not possible continue the drug at the same dose and monitor the patient for
relapse (D).
Therapeutic drug monitoring is mainly relevant to TCAs
and should be considered where there is the potential for
antidepressant toxicity (B); it is also an option for assessing
treatment adherence and lack of efficacy at apparently adequate doses (B).
Manage side effects that are likely to be transient (e.g.
SSRI-induced nausea) by explanation, reassurance and, if
necessary, dose reduction and retitration (C).
For persistent, severe or distressing side effects the options
◦ dose reduction (B) and retitration if possible (D),
◦ switching to an antidepressant with a lower propensity
to cause that side effect (B),
◦ non-drug management of the side-effect (e.g. diet and
exercise for weight gain) (D),
◦ symptomatic treatment with a second drug (e.g. benzodiazepines for agitation/anxiety/insomnia early in treatment (B), sidenafil for erectile dysfunction in men (A),
modafinil for persisting sleepiness) (B).
3.2 Next-step drug treatment options
3. Next-step treatments following inadequate treatment
response to an antidepressant
3.1 Treatment failure and treatment resistance
Assess the efficacy and risks of each alternative next-step
treatment option against the severity and risks associated
with the individual’s depression, the degree of treatment
resistance and past treatments that have been tried (S).
Check the adequacy of treatment including dose and nonadherence (S); increase dose to recommended therapeutic
dose if only a low or marginal dose has been achieved (D).
Review diagnosis including the possibility of other medical
or psychiatric diagnoses, which should be treated in addition (S).
Consider social factors maintaining the depression and, if
present, help the patient address them if possible (S).
Continue adequately dosed antidepressants for at least 4
weeks before changing treatment for lack of efficacy (B).
Assessment after 4 weeks adequate treatment:
◦ if there is at least some improvement continue treatment with the same antidepressant for another 2–4
weeks (B),
if there is no trajectory of improvement undertake a
next-step treatment (B); however in patients who have
failed a number of treatments consider longer trials
before changing treatment (D).
Assessment after 6–8 weeks adequate treatment:
◦ if there is moderate or greater improvement continue
the same treatment,
◦ if there is minimal improvement undertake a next-step
treatment (B); however in patients who have failed a
number of treatments consider longer trials before
changing treatment (D).
Dose increase (C).
◦ consider especially if:
– there are minimal side effects (D) and/or,
– there has been some improvement on the antidepressant (D) and/or,
– the current antidepressant has a possible doseresponse (there is modest evidence for venlafaxine,
escitalopram, TCAs) (C).
Switching antidepressants (A).
◦ consider especially if:
– there are troublesome or dose-limiting side effects
(D) and/or,
– there has been no improvement (D)
◦ switching abruptly is generally preferable unless there is
a potential drug interaction (D) in which case follow the
recommended taper/washout period (S)
◦ options include switching either within- or betweenantidepressant class initially (B)
◦ consider a different antidepressant class after more than
one failure with a specific class (D); consider venlafaxine after more than one SSRI failure (B)
Augmentation/combination treatment (A).
◦ consider adding a second agent especially if:
– there is partial/insufficient response on the current
antidepressant (D) and,
– there is good tolerability of current antidepressant (D),
– switching antidepressant has been unsuccessful (D).
◦ establish the safety of the proposed combination (S).
◦ choose the combinations with the best evidence-base
first (S).
◦ consider adding lithium (A), olanzapine (A), quetiapine
(B), risperidone (B), aripiprazole (B), tri-iodothyronine
(B) or mirtazapine (B) being aware that the evidence
mainly supports lithium and tri-iodothyronine added
to TCAs and the other drugs added to SSRIs.
◦ other additions that could be considered in specialist
centres with careful monitoring (S) are lamotrigine
(C), tryptophan (C), modafinil (C), stimulants (C), oestrogen in perimenopausal women (C) and antiglucocorticoids (C).
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
3.3 Next-step psychological treatment options
Consider adding CBT to ongoing antidepressant treatment (B).
Consider adding other psychological or behavioural treatments that have established acute treatment efficacy (D).
3.4 Next-step physical treatment options
ECT should be considered (A), especially in more severely
ill patients in whom two or more treatments have failed
(C). Unilateral electrode placement should be considered
initially in non-urgent situations (B).
rTMS could be considered (C) but should only be given in
centres with expertise in treating treatment-resistant
patients as part of a clinical trial or with structured service
outcome evaluation (S).
VNS could be considered for patients with chronic
treatment-resistant depression (C) but should only be
given in specialist centres with expertise in treating
treatment-resistant patients as part of a clinical trial or
with structured service outcome evaluation (S).
Ablative neurosurgery could be considered for patients
refractory to pharmacological and psychological treatment
(D) but only in highly specialised centres with multidisciplinary teams who have experience in the assessment and
management of such patients and where procedures are
performed as part of a clinical trial or a clinical programme
subject to independent external review (S).
3.5 Next-step other treatment options
Consider adding omega-3 fatty acids (B), folate (C) or
supervised physical exercise (C).
4.1 Relapse prevention
Be aware that there is a high risk of relapse after a depressive episode, especially in the first 6 months, and that this
risk declines with time in remission (S).
Assess patients for risk factors for relapse (S). The most
important are presence of residual symptoms, number of
previous episodes, severity, duration and degree of treatment resistance of the most recent episode.
Medication-responsive patients should have their medication continued at the acute treatment dose after remission
with the duration determined by risk of relapse (A).
in patients at lower risk of relapse (e.g. first episode
patients without other risk factors) the duration should
be at least 6-9 months after full remission (A),
◦ duration in other cases should be tailored to the individual relapse risk; consider a duration of at least 1 year
after full remission in patients with any increased risk of
relapse (D). In higher risk patients (e.g. more than 5
lifetime episodes and/or 2 episodes in the last few
years) at least 2 years should be advised (A) and for
most long-term treatment should be considered (C).
◦ continue lithium in patients who needed lithium augmentation of antidepressants in acute treatment (B),
◦ consider adding lithium to antidepressants in patients at
high risk of relapse (B) or suicide (A),
◦ do not routinely use lithium as monotherapy for relapse
prevention but consider as a second-line alternative to
antidepressants (B).
CBT added to medication should be considered for patients
with residual symptoms (A) or at high risk of relapse (A).
In responders to acute phase CBT, continuation medication is
not routinely recommended (A); in unstable or partial remitters consider continuation CBT (B) or antidepressants (D).
IPT is not recommended as a sole continuation treatment
for relapse prevention (A) unless acute response was to IPT
monotherapy (C). Consider continuation IPT as an adjunct
to antidepressants in patients with recurrent depression
responding to acute phase IPT combined with antidepressants (C).
In responders to acute phase ECT prophylactic medication
should be continued/initiated (A); consider continuation
ECT in patients with frequent relapses who have been
refractory to prophylactic medication (C).
4.2 Treatment of relapse while on continuation therapy
4. Relapse prevention, treatment of relapse and
stopping treatment
Check the adequacy of treatment including dose and adherence (S).
Review diagnosis including the possibility of additional
medical or psychiatric diagnoses which should be treated
in addition (S).
Consider social factors and, where present, help the patient
address them if possible (S).
Be aware that relapses may be self-limiting (S) and be cautious about frequent or too-early treatment changes (D).
Treatment options:
◦ if antidepressants have been stopped re-start the patient
on an antidepressant at adequate dose (B); if the dose
had been lowered re-establish the previous dose (B),
◦ in a patient on an adequate dose of medication with a
recent-onset relapse initially consider providing support
and monitoring without changing the medication dose
◦ consider increasing the dose of antidepressant (B),
◦ consider other next-step treatments as in Section 3 (D).
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
4.3 Stopping treatment
Be aware of the characteristic symptoms of a discontinuation reaction and its possibility in any patient who stops
antidepressant drug treatment (S).
Warn patients that a discontinuation reaction may occur if
treatment is abruptly stopped after more than a few weeks
treatment (S).
When stopping antidepressant treatment after a period of
prophylaxis, match the timing to both risk and consequences of relapse (D) and warn the patient that the highest
period of risk is in the 6 months after stopping (S).
Take into account the clinical situation to determine the
rate of taper (S); Serious adverse events may warrant
rapid discontinuation; otherwise a minimum period of 4
weeks taper is advised after longer-term treatment (D) and
a period of some months may be appropriate for planned
treatment withdrawal after long-term prophylaxis (D).
If a discontinuation reaction does occur:
◦ explanation and reassurance are often all that is
required (C).
◦ if this is not sufficient, and for more severe reactions,
the antidepressant should be restarted and tapered
more slowly (C); for SSRIs and SNRIs consider switching to fluoxetine which can then be stopped after discontinuation symptoms have fully subsided (D).
5.3 Pregnancy and breastfeeding
5. Special considerations
5.1 Age
Be aware of age-related factors that may influence treatment with antidepressants (S) including:
◦ increased incidence of deliberate self harm in adolescents and young adults.
◦ smaller antidepressant-placebo difference when treating
depression in children and adolescents compared with
◦ decreased tolerability of the elderly to antidepressants.
◦ high risk of depressive relapse in the elderly with
comorbid medical illness.
5.2 Comorbid medical illness
Be aware that increasing severity of comorbid medical illness and painful conditions are associated with poorer
response to antidepressants and a greater risk of depressive
relapse (S).
Be aware of potential drug-drug interactions and routinely
choose antidepressants with a lower risk of interaction in
patients on multiple medications (S).
Consider the potential interaction between the medical illness and adverse-effects of the drug when choosing an antidepressant (S).
Where possible avoid TCAs in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease, arrhythmias and cardiac failure (C).
In acute coronary syndromes choose drugs which do not
increase the risk of subsequent cardiac events (S): there is
best evidence for SSRIs, mirtazapine and bupropion.
In patients with bleeding disorders choose antidepressants
that are not serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRI) in preference to those that are (e.g. SSRIs, SNRIs) (B).
In patients on aspirin/non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs requiring an antidepressant choose a non-SRI antidepressant (A) or combine an SRI with an ulcer-protective
drug (B).
Be aware that untreated depression may lead to adverse
outcomes for mother and baby (S).
Inform women taking prophylactic antidepressants who are
pregnant, or planning to get pregnant, about the risk of
relapse if they are stopped and about potential risks to the
baby (including the neonatal behavioural syndrome) (S).
In women needing treatment for depression while pregnant
choose alternatives to antidepressants where possible (S)
Consider recommending treatment with an antidepressant
when there is a favourable risk-benefit balance (S):
◦ choose antidepressants for which there is most evidence
for a lack of adverse outcomes (S), these include most
SSRIs and TCAs,
◦ avoid the use of paroxetine (B).
If mothers wish to breastfeed while taking antidepressants,
where possible choose drugs which do not accumulate in
the baby (S): sertraline and nortriptyline have undetectable
levels while fluoxetine and citalopram may lead to significant levels in the infant. Breastfeeding while taking lithium
should be avoided where possible (D).
1. Depressive disorders: diagnosis, epidemiology,
detection and service delivery
1.1 The diagnosis of depressive disorders
Determination of the severity and duration of depression guide
treatment choice (II). DSM-IV major depression is a useful
marker for the severity above which antidepressants provide sig-
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
nificant benefit in acute depressive episodes (II) with poorer evidence for a minimum duration ‘threshold’. Individual illness history needs to be taken in to account in deciding treatment (IV).
The dilemma for clinicians (and guidelines) is that categories help to guide decision making, but in reality most illnesses
exist along continua (Rose and Barker, 1978). There is now
more emphasis on thinking of depression along a continuum
of severity between normal sadness and severe illness (Paykel
and Priest, 1992; Lewinsohn, et al., 2000). Community surveys
illustrate that the key symptoms of depression are common in
the community and exist across the whole range of severity
(Jenkins, et al., 1997). A greater number of depressive symptoms are associated with greater morbidity and impact as measured by number of prior episodes, episode duration, family
history, functioning, co-morbidity and heritability (Kessing,
2007). When depression severity is considered as a dimension,
general practitioners appear better able to detect significant
levels of depression than categorical studies have suggested
(Thompson, et al., 2001). Different symptom profiles (such as
melancholia, atypical features, presence of psychosis) do not
form distinct categories (e.g. Kendell, 1968; Angst, et al.,
2007) and on current evidence do not significantly influence
antidepressant choice (see Evidence section 2.3). A similar
argument about continua is applicable to the duration of
depressive symptoms. Dysthymia refers to depressive symptoms that are subthreshold for, and not a consequence of, a
major depressive episode and that last for 2 years or more.
The diagnosis of dysthymia is difficult to make and its validity
and impact on treatment choice are unclear.
We have taken as a starting point that an episode of depression can usefully be considered along three main dimensions –
severity, chronicity and risk of relapse. We believe this conceptual basis is helpful in informing the decision about when, and
for how long, to use antidepressants. Nevertheless, because prescribing decisions are categorical, thresholds for treatment still
need to be determined for individual patients and these broadly
map on to the first two dimensions (Figure 1) although there is
more uncertainty about thresholds for duration than severity.
There is now an international consensus over the diagnostic
criteria for depression. Both of the current major diagnostic
manuals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 2000b) and the 10th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10; World Health
Organization, 1992)] have virtually the same diagnostic features for what is considered a ‘clinically significant’ severity of
depression, termed a major depressive episode in DSM-IV or a
depressive episode in ICD-10. Nevertheless their respective
thresholds differ in that DSM-IV requires a minimum of five
symptoms and ICD-10 only four so that DSM-IV identifies
more severe depression than ICD-10 (Wittchen, et al., 2001).
We use DSM-IV criteria in preference to ICD-10 in these
guidelines (Tables 2, 3) given its predominance in treatment
studies of depressive disorders and because it is a better guide
to the threshold for treatment with antidepressants (see Evidence section 2.1). Of note, the criteria for major depression
Figure 1 A dimensional approach to depressive disorders and response to
treatment. a) Relationship between dimensions and categories of
depressive disorder (see Table 2 for criteria for a major depressive
episode). b) Benefit from antidepressant drug treatment over placebo
increases with severity and duration. There are ‘threshold zones’ where
benefit is uncertain.
can be met even if a person only complains of loss of interest
rather than low mood. The criteria also allow for hypersomnia
and increased appetite as well as the more conventional syndrome in which there is reduced sleep and appetite.
The duration of depression symptoms affects treatment
response to antidepressants and to placebo as discussed in Evidence section 2.1. The most important impact appears to be on
response to placebo and the 2-year cut-off required for dysthymia does not have a good evidence base so that in this guideline we do not give it special status but consider it with subthreshold depression (Table 2).
Identification of the severity and duration of depressive symptoms helps in the decision as to whether to prescribe antidepressants (for discussion see Evidence section 2.1). It must, however,
be recognised that the severity of depression commonly varies
over time within individuals (Judd, et al., 1998a) so that decisions
about prescribing antidepressants needs also to take into account
individual history (see also Evidence section 4.1).
1.2 Descriptive epidemiology: the size and nature of the
Depression is a common, recurrent disorder, about twice as common in women as men (I). It is one of the major causes of morbidity world-side and is associated with increased mortality (I).
Depression is commonly associated with other psychiatric disorders and increased rates are seen in medical illness (I).
Depression is a relatively common condition that is seen in
all societies. The prevalence of major depression shows significant variation between countries, but some of this variation
can be explained by differences in the way depression is
assessed, the threshold used to define depression and cultural
variation in response to the assessments (Weissman, et al.,
1996; Ballenger, et al., 2001; Simon, et al., 2002b). In a meta-
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Table 2
Classification of depressive states
Classification used in Guideline
DSM-IVa (code)
Major depression
Major depressive episode, single
episode or recurrent (296)
Subthreshold depression
(includes ‘minor’ depression)
ICD-10b (code)
Depressive episode, severe (F32.2), moderate (F32.1) or mild with at least
five symptomsc (F32.0)
Recurrent depressive disorder current episode severe (F33.2), moderate
(F33.1) or mild with at least five symptomsc (F33.0)
Depressive disorder not otherwise
Depressive episode, mild with four symptomsc (F32.0)
specified (311)
Recurrent depressive disorder current episode mild with four symptomsc
Adjustment disorder with depressed (F33.0)
mood/mixed anxiety and
Mixed anxiety and depressive disorder (F41.2)
depressed mood (309)
Adjustment disorder – depressive reaction/ mixed anxiety and depressive
reaction (F43.2)
Other mood [affective] disorders (F38)
Dysthymia (300.4)
Dysthymia (F34.1)
Revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (American Psychiatric Association, 2000b).
Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (World Health Organization, 1992).
cFor list of symptoms see Table 3. Must include at least two of (i) depressed mood, (ii) loss of interest or pleasure, (iii) decreased energy or increased
analysis of 23 prevalence and incidence studies (Waraich, et al.,
2004) the best-estimate pooled rates for 1-year and lifetime
prevalence of major depression were found to be 4.1% and
6.7%, respectively. The 1-year and lifetime prevalence rates
for dysthymic disorder were 2.0% and 3.6%, respectively. Prevalence was fairly similar across the age range 18–64 years with
women having 1.5–2.5 times higher prevalence than men. It
should be noted that this meta-analysis, which pooled similarly
conducted high quality studies, gives about half the rates of
those commonly quoted (e.g. Kessler, et al., 2003). This may
be partly due to regional differences but, for lifetime risk
there is also the problem of recall bias and period of risk; the
standardised measure that is used also appears to affect prevaTable 3
lence estimates. Modelling based on prospective studies has
suggested that the lifetime risk of major depression could be
as high as high as 40% in women (Andrews, et al., 2005).
Major depression is a predominantly recurrent disorder
with approximately 80% of people who have received psychiatric care for an episode of major depression having at least one
more episode and a median of four episodes in a lifetime. The
median duration of an episode is around 16–23 weeks. Recovery from prolonged episodes continues to occur over time but
about 12% of patients have a chronic unremitting course (Judd,
1997; Kessler, et al., 2003; Posternak, et al., 2006a). In a 12year follow up study of psychiatric patients varying degrees of
depressive symptoms were present for 59% of the time with
Abridged DSM-IV-TR criteria for major depressive episodea
A Over the past 2 weeks, five of the following features should be present most of the day, or nearly every day (must include 1 or 2):
1. Depressed mood
2. Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities
3. Significant weight loss or gain (more than 5% change in 1 month) or an increase or decrease in appetite nearly every day
4. Insomnia or hypersomnia
5. Psychomotor agitation or retardation (observable by others)
6. Fatigue or loss of energy
7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (not merely self reproach about being sick)
8. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness (either by subjective account or observation of others)
9. Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), or suicidal ideation, or a suicide attempt, or a specific plan for committing suicide.
B The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning.
C The symptoms are not due to a medical/organic factor or illness
The symptoms are not better explained by bereavement (although this can be complicated by major depression).
Episodes are classified as mild (symptoms barely meet minimum criteria, mild functional impairment), moderate (more than minimum symptoms and
functional impairment between mild and severe), severe (most symptoms present, marked or greater functional impairment).
from American Psychiatric Association, 2000b.
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
15% of the time spent in major depression (Judd, et al., 1998b).
Of patients with a diagnosis of major depression about 7–12%
subsequently experience hypomanic/manic episodes, the former
occurring approximately twice as often as the latter (Angst,
1985; Akiskal, et al., 1995). Patients with early onset depression in adolescence appear to have an even greater risk eventual bipolar disorder (Kovacs, 1996).
The elderly have more medical comorbidity and more previous depressive episodes, both of which adversely affect outcome, and relapse rates appear higher than in younger subjects
(Mitchell and Subramaniam, 2005). The overall outcome of
major depression in the elderly is poor with a meta-analysis
of 12 studies of elderly community patients showing that 21%
of patients had died and almost half of those remaining alive
were still depressed after 2 years (Cole, et al., 1999).
The true extent of the disability from depressive disorders is
often not recognised and the Global Burden of Disease study
has estimated that the disability resulting from depression will
be second only to heart disease, worldwide, by the year 2020
(Murray and Lopez, 1997) and it causes a greater decrement in
health state than angina, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes (Moussavi, et al., 2007). Prolonged depression has major consequences
for psychosocial function, both because of the symptoms of
depression, and because it is associated with impaired cognitive
function (O’Brien, et al., 2004; DeBattista, 2005). Depressive disorders are also associated with increased mortality. In a metaanalysis of 36 studies the lifetime prevalence of suicide has been
reported to be 4% in hospitalised depressed patients, rising to
8.6% if hospitalised for suicidality. In mixed inpatient/outpatients populations the lifetime prevalence is 2.2% compared with
less than 0.5% in the non-affectively ill population (Bostwick
and Pankratz, 2000). A meta-analysis of 54 observational studies
found that depressive disorders are associated with an 80%
increased risk both of coronary heart disease and of subsequent
mortality; however it concluded that potential confounders
meant that the role of depression as an independent risk factor
has yet to be established (Nicholson, et al., 2006).
In attenders in general practice studies have reported that 4–
10% of consecutive patients have a major depression with a
similar percentage having depression of lower severity (Blacker
and Clare, 1988; Barrett, et al., 1988; Tiemens, et al., 1999;
Wittchen, et al., 2001).
Depressive disorders are frequently associated with other
psychiatric disorders, most commonly with an anxiety disorder
but also with substance misuse, impulse control disorders and
eating disorders in women (Weissman, et al., 1996; Kessler, et
al., 2003). Medical illness is also associated with increased rates
of major depression (Wells, et al., 1988; Sutor, et al., 1998;
Moussavi, et al., 2007).
1.3 Detection and outcome
Enhanced education of clinicians is not, on its own, sufficient to
make a substantial impact on increasing the detection or out-
come of depressive disorders (I–II). Non-targeted, single stage,
screening/case finding questionnaires have minimal impact on the
detection, management and outcome of depressive disorders in
primary care although two-stage screening may increase detection and improve management, but not outcome (I). There is a
lack of evidence about whether screening patients at high risk is
Thirty to fifty percent of cases of depression in primary care
and medical settings are not detected (Freeling, et al., 1985;
Ronalds, et al., 1997; Rost, et al., 1998). Depressive disorders
are missed for a variety of reasons include somatic (physical
symptom) presentation, patients’ and doctors’ beliefs about
depression and its treatment, the patient not telling the doctor
because of stigma or non-recognition and lack of skills or time
by the doctor (Tylee, et al., 1995; Priest, et al., 1996; Davidson
and Meltzer-Brody, 1999). However undetected patients have
less severe disorders and are functioning better than detected
patients (Schwenk, et al., 1996; Ronalds, et al., 1997; Simon, et
al., 1999a) and it has been argued that detection is simply an
indicator of severity (Dowrick and Buchan, 1995). A large
international naturalistic study in 15 cities around found that
about 50% of undetected cases still met criteria for caseness 1
year later (Goldberg, et al., 1998). A small longitudinal study
(Kessler, et al., 2002) found that the majority of undetected
individuals either recovered or were diagnosed during the
follow-up period; nevertheless, nearly 20% of the identified
cases in this study remained undetected and unwell after 3
The time-limited benefit on depression management and
suicide rates from an educational programme for doctors in
Gotland (Rutz, et al., 1992) appears to have been related to
improvements in already diagnosed patients (Rutz, 1999) and,
although there is some inconsistency, the best evidence indicates that education alone does not improve doctors’ identification of depression (Hannaford, et al., 1996; Thompson, et al.,
2000; Lin, et al., 2001).
Screening questions and self-report scales for the detection
of depressive disorders are generally fairly sensitive but vary in
specificity (Wilkinson and Barczak, 1988; Goldberg, et al.,
1988; Whooley, et al., 1997; Arroll, et al., 2003; Gilbody, et
al., 2007b). Three are described in Table 4. A meta-analysis
of 12 RCTs, mostly in primary care, found only a small, statistically heterogeneous, impact on the recognition of depression
when clinicians were fed back scores on depression screening/
case finding instruments (Gilbody, et al., 2005). This appeared
to be accounted for by three, two-stage, screening studies in
which only high scorers were included (high risk feedback).
Similar findings were found for active management and the
prescription of antidepressants with significant impact only
apparent in the 2 ‘high-risk feedback’ studies. From limited
data, case identification on its own did not improve outcome.
These findings suggest limited benefit from screening and are
consistent with non-randomised prospective studies in which
detection alone has not been shown to be associated with adequate treatment (Simon, et al., 2004) or improved medium to
longer-term outcome (Tiemens, et al., 1996; Ronalds, et al.,
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Table 4
Screening for depressive disorders
A Two question testa,b
During the past month, have you often been bothered by feeling down, depressed or hopeless?
2 During the past month, have you often been bothered by little interest or pleasure in doing things?
Yes to both gives 96–97% sensitivity at picking up depression but only 57–67% specificity.
Hospital Anxiety and Depression (HAD) Scalec
A 14-item self-rating scale for severity of depression and anxiety symptoms. It was developed for general medical patients and lacks questions relating
to fatigue, sleep, appetite and weight loss, which might be caused by medical illness. In general practice it has a 90% sensitivity at detecting
depression with 86% specificityd.
Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9)f
A nine-item self-rating scale for the proportion of the time in the past 2 weeks that depressive symptoms have been present. It has an 80% sensitivity at
detecting depression and a 92% specificityg.
et al., 1997
et al., 2003
cZigmond and Snaith, 1983
dWilkinson and Barczak, 1988
fKroenke, et al., 2001
gGilbody et al., 2007b
1997; Simon, et al., 1999a; Thompson, et al., 2000) although it
may be associated with modest greater short-term improvement (Simon, et al., 1999a). Screening may be useful in situations when a depressive disorder is suspected and in high-risk
populations; however evidence is lacking.
1.4 Service delivery
In primary care, broadly defined collaborative care for depressive symptoms improves outcome in primary care but the size
of effect is small (I) and it is expensive on average (I). Case
management in patients with major depression appears more
clinically effective (I) and can be delivered more cheaply (I).
Improved antidepressant treatment adherence is associated with
better outcomes in collaborative care and case management studies (I). Structured follow-up itself appears to be an important
aspect of improved outcome (I). In secondary (specialist psychiatric) care there does not appear to be any benefit from telephone case-management in treating major depression (II) but
guideline/algorithm-driven treatment combined with structured
assessment and management of improves outcome over treatment
as usual (I).
The elements of a ‘system level approach’ to chronic illness
management can be grouped into four main components: (i) a
multi-professional approach; (ii) application of a structured
management plan; (iii) scheduled patient follow-up; and (iv)
enhanced inter-professional communication (Gunn, et al.,
2006). Depression studies have focussed on primary care and
the principal models have been case management (Von Korff
and Goldberg, 2001) and collaborative management of care
(Katon, et al., 1997) but there is considerable overlap and variation in the interventions used.
A meta-analysis of 27 studies of collaborative care in primary care patients with depression (Gilbody, et al., 2006a)
found a small significant effect size of 0.25, maintained up to
5 years (effect size 0.15) with increased medication adherence
related to improved outcome. The studies included had a broad
range of depression severity and interventions (defined as structured care involving as greater use of non-medical specialists to
augment treatment). A meta-analysis of 13 RCTs of case management (continuity of care with at least systematic monitoring
of symptoms) in patients with major depression (Gensichen, et
al., 2006) showed a larger significant effect size of 0.40 in
favour of case management after 6–12 months with an NNT
of five to achieve response. The intervention groups showed
enhanced medication adherence of 66% compared with 50%
in the control groups (NNT 6–7); no difference was found
between complex and simple case management (defined as
number of elements involved). The key elements necessary to
improve outcome are not clear but systematic identification of
patients, scheduled follow-up, a structured management
approach, enhanced medication adherence and case-manager
quality appear important (Gensichen, et al., 2006; Bower, et
al., 2006; Gilbody, et al., 2006a). Systematic follow-up itself
appears to have a significant effect. A systematic review of
placebo-controlled antidepressant RCTs with different num-
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
bers of scheduled assessments up to 6 weeks found that
decreases in depressive symptoms were considerably greater
for both antidepressant and placebo groups if there were
more scheduled follow-up assessments, although this was not
able to be statistically tested (Posternak and Zimmerman,
2007a). A primary care study found that systematic follow-up
was as effective as a more intensive depression care programme
(Vergouwen, et al., 2005).
Collaborative care costs on average about £10/$20 per additional depression-free day (Gilbody, et al., 2006b). This
appears high and, although the most cost effective approach
is not known, it is possible that low complexity case management interventions may be the most cost-effective. For example, telephone case management at a cost of about £40/$80 per
patient resulted in significantly better response rates at 6
months than usual care (response 56% versus 40%) (Simon, et
al., 2000)
There is less evidence in secondary care. Telephone case
management did not improve outcomes in one study (Simon, et
al., 2006a) but RCTs implementing a systematic treatment
approach using standardised assessments and outcome definitions, and critical decision points for interventions based on
evidence-based guidelines or algorithms (Trivedi, et al., 2004;
Adli, et al., 2006), did show improved outcomes over treatment
as usual, persisting at least to 1 year.
1.5 Psychiatric/specialist referral
Criteria for psychiatric/specialist referral are based on risk and
requirement for specialist expertise (IV)
Certain conditions, such as high suicide risk, psychotic
major depression and major depression in bipolar patients,
have specific treatment implications (Goodwin, 2003; National
Institute for Clinical Excellence, 2004) generally regarded as
requiring specialist expertise. There are no controlled data
related to indications for referral.
2. Acute treatment
2.1 Acute efficacy of antidepressant drugs
Antidepressants are effective in the acute treatment of major
depression of moderate and greater severity in adults (response
rates of about 50% compared with 30% on placebo, NNT 5) (I).
Nevertheless 55–65% of depressed patients treated with antidepressants have significant continuing symptoms (I). Smaller
drug-placebo differences (principally due to greater responses
to placebo) are seen in primary care patients versus psychiatric
outpatients (II), children and adolescents versus adults (II) and
to a lesser degree elderly versus working age adults (I). In children <13 years the drug-placebo difference is small and not sta-
tistically significant (I). Antidepressants are effective for major
depression associated with medical illness (I) but the response is
poorer with active medical illness (II). The benefit for antidepressants over placebo appear to increase with the severity of
depression (II) and with duration (II). Clear thresholds for clinically significant benefit are not known and likely to differ
between individuals. Most consistently associated with efficacy
(compared with placebo) are major depression that is clearly
above the threshold for diagnosis in both number and severity
of individual symptoms (I) and a duration of at least 2–3 months
(III). Response to antidepressants in major depression does not
appear to be greatly influenced by depression type or prior life
events (II). Response to placebo appears lower in more severe
depression and melancholia and higher in less severe, shorter
duration episodes preceded by life events, and in children and
adolescents (I–III).
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE)
depression guidelines (National Institute for Clinical Excellence, 2004) outlined a ‘rule of thumb’ requiring a Hamilton
Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) or Beck Depression Inventory weighted-mean difference of three points (two points for
treatment-resistant depression), an effect size of 0.5 or a relative risk of 0.8 versus placebo for clinical efficacy. This guideline takes the view that statistical separation between drug and
placebo in RCTs is informative about whether a treatment is
effective but that pragmatism and clinical judgment are needed
to decide clinical usefulness based on the risk-benefit balance in
specific situations rather than an arbitrary cut-off. This
requires taking into account an individual’s history and the
availability of alternative evidence-based treatments, remembering that placebo treatment is not ‘no’ treatment and that
systematic follow up itself may have substantial benefit (see
Evidence section 2.4).
There is strongest evidence for the efficacy of treating major
depression of at least moderate severity [e.g. typically an
HDRS >17 or Montgomery Asberg Depression Rating Scale
(MADRS) >20], the entry criterion for most randomised controlled studies (RCTs) with a placebo condition. Antidepressants have been shown to improve response (usually defined
as a 50% reduction in HDRS/MADRS scores or marked
improvement or better on Clinical Global Impression) and
remission (commonly defined as HDRS <8 or MADRS <11–
13 and absence of significant symptoms) compared with placebo. In a meta-analysis of 75 short-term RCTs, intentionto-treat response rates were about 50% on antidepressants compared with 30% on placebo (NNT 5) (Walsh, et al., 2002), but
with wide variation and evidence that responses rates, especially to placebo, have been increasing over time. A metaanalysis of 15 antidepressant RCTs in depressed patients
(mostly major depression) recruited from primary care (Arroll,
et al., 2005) found a significant advantage to antidepressants
over placebo (response 58% versus 44%, NNT 7 recalculated
from the paper). This suggests generally higher response rates
to antidepressant and placebo with less difference between
them than in RCTs predominantly carried out in psychiatric
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
It is important to note that placebo is likely to have an
effect above spontaneous improvement but data are scarce. A
meta-analysis of waiting list controls in 19 studies of major
depression found rating scale score decreases of 12–16% over
2–20 weeks and up to 20% of patients showed 50% or greater
improvement (Posternak and Miller, 2001). This compares
with an average 30% response rate on placebo (Walsh, et al.,
2002) (ie NNT of ~10). A meta-analysis found a similar sized,
but non-significant, benefit to placebo over no treatment in
depression (effect size 0.27) from four very atypical studies
(Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche, 2004).
Recently emphasis has been on remission as a goal of treatment as responders may still have significant residual symptoms, even if subthreshold for major depression. This is estimated to occur in about 30% of patients at the end of acute
treatment and is associated with greater functional disability,
suicide risk, and risk of relapse (Kennedy and Foy, 2005).
There are fewer studies reporting remission rates and these typically find 35–50% remission with antidepressants and 25–35%
with placebo in short-term studies (Thase, et al., 2001; Smith,
et al., 2002; Dawson, et al., 2004) indicating that over half of
depressed patients have significant continuing symptoms after
acute treatment with antidepressants.
A meta-analysis of 17 RCTs in the elderly found a benefit
for antidepressants over placebo with NNTs ranging from 4 to
8 for different classes of drugs (Wilson, et al., 2001). In an
elderly (≥60 years) subgroup of six studies from the metaanalysis by (Walsh, et al., 2002) the antidepressant-placebo difference was significantly smaller than in studies with younger
adults (NNT 7–8 versus 5) (Walsh and Sysko, 2005). The use of
antidepressants in children and adolescents has been the subject
of much controversy with regard to risk-benefit balance and
the relative difference between individual drugs. Simple pooling
of all antidepressants shows a significant overall benefit for
antidepressants in 18 RCTs (odds ratio 1.52) (Papanikolaou, et
al., 2006). A statistical advantage for tricyclic antidepressants
(TCAs) over placebo in 13 studies was found only for continuous measures but not in a responder analysis (Hazell, et al.,
2002; Papanikolaou, et al., 2006) whereas selective serotonin
reutake inhibitors (SSRIs) as a group were effective (five studies, odds ratio 1.84) (Papanikolaou, et al., 2006). In a metaanalysis including unpublished studies, which combined SSRIs
(11 studies) with nefazodone, mirtazapine and venlafaxine
(15 studies altogether) the response rates were 61% on antidepressants compared with 50% on placebo (NNT 10) (Bridge, et
al., 2007). The significance for individual antidepressants
depends to some extent on method of analysis. Effect sizes for
continuous data (reduction in depressive symptoms) were significant for fluoxetine (0.43), citalopram (0.34), sertaline (0.28)
and venlafaxine (0.29) but not for paroxetine (0.07) in another
meta-analysis (Whittington, et al., 2004). Analysis of SSRI and
other newer antidepressant studies in adolescents and younger
children (aged 5–12 years) separately show a significant benefit
in the former (10 studies, 62% versus 49% response, NNT 7–8)
with a lack of statistically significant benefit found in the latter
(five studies, 65% versus 58% response, NNT 14) (Bridge, et al.,
2007); however studies of fluoxetine did show similar significant benefit in both age groups (NNT 5). The real issues
about antidepressants in the treatment of children and adolescents are whether the benefits outweigh adverse events as firstline treatment and what is their place in the overall management (see Evidence section 2.3)
A systematic review of 18 studies of antidepressant treatment in depressive disorders associated with medical illness
reported similar response rates to those seen in the primary
depression studies but the nature and degree of medical illness
varied widely and it is difficult to draw conclusions about efficacy in specific conditions or the effect of current severity on
outcome (Gill and Hatcher, 1999). A review of studies comparing depressed patients with and without medical illness found
that the response to antidepressants is poorer in those with a
significant current severity of comorbid medical illness (Iosifescu, et al., 2004a) as also found in the recent large
STAR*D trial (Trivedi, et al., 2006b).
Reliable assessment of the severity of depression is problematic. NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence, 2004),
following ICD-10 criteria, proposed that moderate depression
is defined as 5–6 symptoms and severe depression as 7 or more,
while recognising that symptom counting alone is insufficient
to determine severity. Definitions related to rating scale scores
are also problematic because of variation in instruments and
assessment practices as well as lack of clinical utility. In this
guideline we have adopted the DSM-IV definition of severity,
which includes both number of symptoms and degree of functional impairment (Table 3).
From limited evidence, the threshold of diagnosis of (DSMIV) major depression may be a rough marker for benefit from
antidepressants over placebo. In post-hoc analyses, two studies
(Stewart, et al., 1983; Paykel, et al., 1988) showed that patients
with depression below the threshold for major depression (subthreshold or minor depression) showed no advantage for a tricyclic over placebo whereas there was an advantage for those
with major depression. Similarly, two RCTs in primary care of
enhanced treatment resulting in improved medication adherence showed benefits for the intervention compared with treatment as usual in those with major depression but not those
with minor (subthreshold) depression (Katon, et al., 1996;
Peveler, et al., 1999).
Two RCTs with patients with minor depression have shown
little or no benefit for antidepressants over placebo (Williams,
et al., 2000; Barrett, et al., 2001). One minor depression study
with a prospective 4 week single blind placebo run-in period
had a low placebo remission rate and found a significant
advantage for fluoxetine (Judd, et al., 2004). The reason for
the lack of separation of antidepressants from placebo seen in
the other trials is the high remission rate on placebo (49–66%)
(Williams, et al., 2000; Barrett, et al., 2001); in one of the studies milder depression severity predicted response to placebo but
not to paroxetine (Sullivan, et al., 2003).
In patients with dysthymia a meta-analysis of 15 RCTs
showed that 55% of patients responded on antidepressant
drug treatment compared with 30% on placebo (NNT 4)
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
(Lima and Moncrieff, 2000). This is supported in more recent
studies (Williams, et al., 2000; Barrett, et al., 2001) although in
elderly patients the effect was of marginal clinical significance
(46% versus 40% remission, NNT 17).
Although the belief that the separation in effect between
antidepressants and placebo increases with severity of depression has been questioned (Moncrieff and Kirsch, 2005), such
evidence as we have supports this (Ottevanger, 1991; Angst, et
al., 1993; Kirsch, et al., 2002; Khan, et al., 2005a). HDRS
scores above 24 provide the most consistent and clinically significant separation between drug and placebo and this can be
considered to be at the borderline between moderate and severe
major depression (Muller, et al., 2003; Khan, et al., 2005a).
Benefit (statistical and clinical) from an antidepressant over
placebo in depression is likely to vary widely depending on
patient characteristics rather than there being a clear threshold.
Major depression of moderate severity is approximately where
benefit can be detected in group analyses and there is increasing likelihood of benefit as severity increases further. Greater
duration of depressive episode (over time scales of 1–2 years) is
associated with a poorer response to placebo (Stewart, et al.,
1989; Khan, et al., 1991; Stewart, et al., 1993), with less effect
on response to antidepressants (Khan, et al., 1991; Joyce, et al.,
2002; Trivedi, et al., 2006b) suggesting increasing drug-placebo
difference with increasing duration. Two studies with lower
than expected placebo improvement rates, one in subthreshold
depression (24% defined as ‘not depressed’ on placebo at the
end of the study, Judd, et al., 2004) and one in adolescents
(35% response rate, March, et al., 2004) required a minimum
duration of stable depressed mood prospectively for 4 weeks or
retrospectively for 6 weeks, respectively, and found significant
advantage for an antidepressant. A naturalistic follow-up study
of recurrent major depressive episodes found a high natural
recovery rate without taking antidepressants for many patients
experiencing a relapse in the first 3 months (Posternak, et al.,
2006b). This suggests placebo response/spontaneous remission
rates are high in the initial 2–3 months and that benefit for
antidepressant treatment over placebo may become more
apparent after this time.
Given the continuum of depression a major problem is in
distinguishing between depressive states that are relatively transient and those that are precursors of more severe, recurrent or
chronic conditions where antidepressants are likely to be helpful (Kessing, 2007). Overall the clinical presentation of depression and whether there was a preceding life-event affects
response to antidepressants relatively little (e.g. Vallejo, et al.,
1991; Angst, et al., 1993; Tomaszewska, et al., 1996; Fava, et
al., 1997; Ezquiaga, et al., 1998; Brown, 2007) but greater
severity (see above) and melancholia (Brown, 2007) are associated with a poorer response to placebo, and hence potentially
greater benefit from antidepressant treatment. Although poorly
researched, response to placebo may be greater if there has
been a precipitating life-event and short duration of depression
(Browne, et al., 1992), lesser severity (Sullivan, et al., 2003;
Stein, et al., 2006) and in children and adolescents (Bridge, et
al., 2007) and in these situations short-term benefit from anti-
depressants may be less clear. However these findings are not
strong enough to allow confident prediction on an individual
The decision about when to use an antidepressant in an
individual case, particularly in recent onset mild major depression, remains uncertain, since the average behaviour observed
in trials may not reflect the need for early treatment in particular individuals. At present there is no firm evidence on which to
base rules about ‘watchful waiting’, or indeed how it should be
carried out.
2.2 Alternatives to antidepressants for acute treatment
Psychological and behavioural treatments
Assessment of the efficacy of psychological treatments attributable to the specific technique used is made difficult by the broad
definition of depression and the lack of adequate control groups
in many studies. Non-specific psychological treatment (ie psychological placebo) appears to be moderately effective against
waiting list/no treatment (II). In major depression there is evidence for efficacy attributable to the specific technique for cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) (I), behaviour therapy/activity
scheduling (BT/AS) (I), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)
(I) and high intensity supervised exercise (I/II); only CBT has
evidence for reducing subsequent relapse (I). Specific benefit has
not been demonstrated for problem solving therapy (PST) (I),
marital therapy (II), brief psychodynamic psychotherapy (II),
counselling (I) and self-help techniques such as computerised
CBT and guided self-help (I/II). Efficacy attributable to the specific technique is not clear in subthreshold and mild major
depression or severe major depression in adults and there is
only limited evidence for CBT in children and adolescents with
depressive symptoms (I). Experienced therapists are needed for
treating moderate to severe major depression if psychological
therapies are employed (II).
CBT, BT/AS and IPT are as effective as antidepressants in
the acute treatment of mild to moderate major depression in
adults (I) but whether they are as effective in severe major
depression and in adolescents is not clear. In primary care following patient preference for psychological or antidepressant
treatment does not influence overall outcome (II).
Combination psychological and antidepressant treatment
appears no more effective than psychotherapy alone in the
acute treatment of adults with mild to moderate major depression
(I) but it may be in moderate to severe major depression (II).
Combination treatment is more effective than antidepressant
monotherapy in major depression (I), probably accounted for
by depression of moderate or greater severity (II). In depression
in adolescents most studies find that combining an SSRI and
CBT is no more effective than an SSRI alone (I).
It is important to recognise that studies of psychological
therapies in depression often do not have adequate placebo
control, many are small and the mood disorder may be broadly
defined. This makes them vulnerable to bias and confounding
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
with non-specific effects. In addition the high placebo response/
spontaneous improvement seen in antidepressant drug trials in
patients with shorter, less severe illness is relevant to non-drug
alternatives. Elaborate or expensive non-drug treatments
require comparable evaluation to that required for antidepressants. It is outside the remit of this review of evidence to consider the different varieties or variations of specific psychological techniques.
Recent reviews/meta-analyses have concluded that in adults
with depressive symptoms there is evidence of acute efficacy for
cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) versus waiting list/drug placebo (20 studies, effect size 0.82) (Haby, et al., 2006), behaviour therapy (BT) versus waiting list/drug placebo/relaxation/
treatment as usual (12 studies, effect size 0.70) (Ekers, et al.,
2007), activity scheduling (AS, overlapping with BT) versus
waiting list/ placebo/treatment as usual (10 studies, effect size
0.87) (Cuijpers, et al., 2007b), interpersonal psychotherapy
(IPT) versus waiting list/drug placebo/usual treatment (nine
studies, risk ratio 0.72) (de Mello, et al., 2005) and problem
solving therapy (PST) versus control treatment/placebo/waiting
list (13 studies, effect size 0.34–0.83 depending on method of
analysis) (Cuijpers, et al., 2007c). There is only preliminary/
modest evidence against waiting list/usual care/no treatment
for marital therapy (two studies, effect size 1.28) (Barbato
and D’Avanzo, 2006), brief psychodymamic therapy (two studies) (Leichsenring, et al., 2004) and counselling (six studies,
effect size 0.28) (Bower, et al., 2003).
The size of the effect seen with specific psychological treatments is reduced if non-specific effects are taken into account.
A recent meta-regression analysis (Haby, et al., 2006) of 33
CBT studies in depression and anxiety disorders found that
taking into account the effect of attentional placebo (i.e. an
active control condition) significantly reduced the effect size by
0.52 compared with those against waiting list. Similarly (Wampold, et al., 2002) found only a modest benefit for CBT over
‘non-bona fide’ (ie placebo) therapies in depression (11 studies,
effect size 0.49) and with PST the effect size against usual care
and placebo was much smaller than against waiting list (effect
sizes 0.05 versus 0.27 versus 1.61, respectively) (Cuijpers, et al.,
The evidence for specific psychological therapies in subthreshold depression is limited to comparison with treatment
as usual/waiting list and is predominantly CBT-based. A
meta-analysis of seven studies found a significant moderate
effect size (0.42) after treatment, which was small and not significant at 6- and 12-month follow-up (effect size 0.16–0.17)
(Cuijpers, et al., 2007a). This could be accounted for by nonspecific effects of the interventions (see above).
The evidence for the efficacy of specific psychological therapies against placebo control in well-defined major depression
is more limited. As discussed below there is some evidence for
CBT, BT and IPT in major depression but a meta-analysis of
PST studies found only a small (although statistically significant) effect size when studies of major depression were analysed separately (six studies, effect size 0.15) (Cuijpers, et al.,
A meta-analysis found modest positive effects for CBT in
children and adolescents in small studies against active control/waiting list (six studies, effect size 0.41) (Haby, et al.,
2004) but doubts have been raised about its efficacy by a recent
large negative study against drug placebo (March, et al., 2004)
in which CBT was also less effective than fluoxetine. A subsequent small study found CBT to be more effective than sertraline acutely with combined treatment intermediate (Melvin, et
al., 2006). There are only preliminary results for IPT in this age
group which suggest it is more effective than waiting list/clinical monitoring (Mufson and Sills, 2006). A non-quantitative
review of psychological treatments for major depression in the
elderly reported efficacy for CBT (five studies) and PST (one
study) against waiting list (Frazer, et al., 2005).
The specific psychotherapy with strongest evidence for significant reduction of subsequent relapse is CBT (see Evidence
section 4.1).
In comparative studies of broadly defined depression there
appears little difference in efficacy between CBT and other
‘bona-fide’ psychotherapies (11 studies, non-significant effect
size 0.16 in favour of CBT) (Wampold, et al., 2002), CBT
and BT (12 studies, non-significant effect size 0.08 in favour
of CBT) (Ekers, et al., 2007) or CBT and AS (10 studies,
non-significant effect size 0.01 in favour of AS) (Cuijpers, et
al., 2007b). A placebo-controlled RCT found no difference
between CBT, BT and antidepressants in mild to moderate
major depression but an advantage to antidepressants and BT
over CBT in the moderately to severely depressed (Dimidjian,
et al., 2006). A recent RCT comparing CBT and IPT found no
overall difference but an advantage to CBT in patients with
more severe major depression (MADRS >29) (Luty, et al.,
2007). BT was found to be more effective than brief dynamic
or interpersonal psychotherapy (three studies, effect size 0.56)
and supportive therapy (two studies, effect size 0.75) in treating
depressive symptoms (Ekers, et al., 2007).
In comparing specific psychotherapies and antidepressants
the influential NIMH study (Elkin, et al., 1989) found no significant difference over all between imipramine, CBT and IPT
although imipramine was numerically superior. A metaanalysis of six RCTs of well-defined mild to moderate major
depression with control treatment arms found equal remission
rates for antidepressants and psychotherapy (primarily CBT
and IPT) (46% for both), which were both more effective than
the control condition (26%) (Casacalenda, et al., 2002). A secondary analysis of CBT compared with antidepressants in
patients with at least moderate major depression (17-item
HDRS scores >19) from four RCTs (Derubeis, et al., 1999)
found overall equal efficacy to antidepressants but two subsequent placebo-controlled RCTs have had mixed results. One
found no significant difference in comparative efficacy with
both superior to placebo (Derubeis, et al., 2005) but a numerical advantage to antidepressants over CBT (8 week response
50% versus 43%), significant in one treatment centre attributed
to lower therapist expertise (Derubeis, et al., 2005). The other
RCT found improvement over placebo for antidepressants but
not CBT over 8 weeks but final response rates were similar at
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
16 weeks (Dimidjian, et al., 2006). A large study using the cognitive behavioural-analysis system of psychotherapy (CBASP),
which includes cognitive, behavioural and interpersonal techniques, in patients with major depression and at least 2 years of
depressive symptoms found equal efficacy for CBASP compared with nefazodone (Keller, et al., 2000).
There continues to be a debate about whether specific psychotherapies are effective, or as effective as antidepressants in
severe major depression, particularly given the cognitive deficits which might be expected to impair engagement, concentration and memory (Tavares, et al., 2003). In the NIMH study
superior treatment response was found in depressed patients to
IPT if they had lower social dysfunction pre-treatment, to CBT
(and imipramine) if they had lower cognitive dysfunction pretreatment, to imipramine and IPT with high depression severity
and to imipramine with high work dysfunction (Sotsky, et al.,
1991). By contrast, a recent study found IPT to be less effective
than CBT in more severely ill patients (Luty, et al., 2007). In
the study by Dimidjian, et al. (2006) CBT was less effective
than BT in more severely depressed patients seemingly due to
a subset of CBT subjects who had a particularly poor response.
A difficulty in interpretation is the definition of ‘severe’ major
depression in the psychotherapy studies. In studies purporting
to examine this (Derubeis, et al., 1999; Derubeis, et al., 2005;
Dimidjian, et al., 2006; Luty, et al., 2007) the mean 17-item
HDRS scores was 23–25 across studies. Although there is no
agreed definition of severe major depression, in drug studies a
minimum score of 25 or greater has been used (Angst, et al.,
1995; Khan, et al., 2005a) which is supported by the HDRS
cut-off corresponding to severe depression on the clinical
global impression scale (Muller, et al., 2003). Therefore the
scores in these CBT studies are better viewed as indicative of
moderate/marked rather than severe major depression and the
efficacy of psychotherapies in the latter remains unclear.
Although therapist expertise has been little studied, there is evidence for CBT that experienced therapists are required to
achieve good outcomes in moderate to severe major depression
(Scott, 1996; Shaw, et al., 1999; Derubeis, et al., 2005).
Thase, et al. (1997) in a mega-analysis (combined individual
data) of six studies found equal efficacy for combined drug and
psychotherapy compared with IPT or CBT in patients with
mild to moderate major depression (HDRS <20) but a poorer
response to psychotherapy alone in those with moderate to
severe major depression with recurrent illness. A large study
of chronic subthreshold depression (dysthymia) in primary
care found that sertraline and IPT combined with sertraline
were more effective than IPT alone (Browne, et al., 2002). A
meta-analysis of 89 studies in the elderly found similar effect
sizes for antidepressant and psychological treatments in major
depression and a possible greater effect size for psychological
treatment than antidepressants in subthreshold depression (Pinquart, et al., 2006). However, the drug and psychological treatment were not from comparative studies nor were the studies
directly comparable in terms of blinded assessment or adequate
placebo condition, making interpretation insecure.
A meta-analysis of 16 studies of major depression and dysthymia in adults found a 12.6% advantage (NNT 8) for combined treatment over antidepressant drug alone, with greater
benefit and decreased dropout in studies longer than 12 weeks
(Pampallona, et al., 2004); the authors reported not being able
to examine the effect of severity. The two largest studies
(accounting for 28% of the weight) in the meta-analysis were
one with patients of at least moderately severe major depression with chronic depressive symptoms in which combined
nefazodone and CBASP was found more effective than either
treatment alone (Keller, et al., 2000) and a study of dysthymia
in which no advantage was found for combined IPT and sertraline over setraline (Browne, et al., 2002). More recently an
RCT of depressed in-patients (mean HDRS 23.5) reported
greater efficacy for IPT combined with antidepressants compared with antidepressants and clinical management (response
70% versus 51%) (Schramm, et al., 2007). In recent studies in
adolescents greater efficacy for combined CBT and fluoxetine
compared with either treatment alone (CBT not separating
from placebo) was reported in one study (March, et al., 2004)
but three subsequent studies have found no benefit from combined treatment over an SSRI alone (Clarke, et al., 2005; Melvin, et al., 2006; Goodyer, et al., 2007).
Primary care studies have found that patients generally prefer psychotherapy to antidepressants (van Schaik, et al., 2004)
but allocation by patient preference has not found any difference in outcomes between the two although there may be a
more rapid improvement if treatment is matched to treatment
preference (van Schaik, et al., 2004; Lin, et al., 2005). One naturalistic study found antidepressants to be the most costeffective strategy for the majority of patients (Miller, et al.,
In summary the evidence suggests similar efficacy for antidepressants, some specific therapies (CBT, BT and IPT) and
the combination in mild to moderate depression in adults and
the elderly with greater efficacy of combination treatment in
moderate to severe depression but a lack of evidence for very
severe depression. In adolescents CBT is probably effective but
may be inferior to fluoxetine and most studies find no benefit
for combined treatment over an SSRI alone.
Assessing self-help therapies is difficult because of the wide
range of potential approaches, the patient populations involved
and a lack of a consistent methodology for its application
including the degree of guidance and treatment in control
arms. A recent review of computerised CBT (Kaltenthaler, et
al., 2006) found some evidence for its efficacy in depression
compared with treatment as usual but a lack of data on relative
efficacy versus therapist-led CBT or other treatments. There
are, however, concerns about the quality and generalisability
of evidence and uncertainties about organisational issues in
purchasing these products. A meta-analysis of internet-based
CBT, mostly against waiting list/treatment as usual/attention
(ie active) placebo found only a small significant effect for studies of subjects with depressive symptoms (five studies, effect
size 0.27) compared with a large effect for those with anxiety
symptoms (six studies, effect size 0.96) but this may have partly
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
been accounted for by the degree of support by monitoring
with or without feedback (Spek, et al., 2007). Bibliotherapy
based on CBT principles was evaluated in a recent metaanalysis, which identified 11 studies (Anderson, et al., 2005).
There was a significant benefit against treatment as usual/waiting list (eight studies, effect size 1.28) but most of the effect was
due to six US studies using Feeling Good (Burns, 1999) involving small groups of self-selected subjects and weekly contact by
research workers familiar with the intervention. Two recent
moderate sized RCTs in primary care clinical populations comparing guided self-help against waiting list controls (Mead, et
al., 2005) or added to standard antidepressant treatment (Salkovskis, et al., 2006) failed to find benefit although a previous
study found some evidence of an advantage at 1 month but not
3 months when added to treatment as usual (Richards, et al.,
A meta-analysis of 10 RCTs of exercise for depression
found an effect size of 1.1 against no treatment with no significant difference from CBT (three studies, effect size 0.3 in
favour of exercise) or sertraline (1 study) (Lawlor and Hopker,
2001). However, most studies were in non-clinical populations
with a poorly defined diagnosis of depression and methodological limitations. Considering RCTs published since that metaanalysis, a small RCT of supervised exercise in major depression in adults found that 12 weeks high intensity exercise was
significantly more effective than low-intensity exercise and
stretching exercise in mild severity depression (Dunn, et al.,
2005) and that 10 days of endurance training was more effective than stretching exercises as an adjunct to antidepressants in
moderately to severely depressed inpatients (Knubben, et al.,
2007). Two RCTs of 8–10 weeks supervised weight training in
mixed minor (subthreshold) and major depression in elderly
patients found benefit against education control (which continued to 10 weeks unsupervised follow-up) (Singh, et al., 2001)
and against low-intensity exercise and usual care (Singh, et
al., 2005). In minor/mild severity depression in older subjects
there was possible benefit for 10–16 weeks exercise on its own
(Brenes, et al., 2007) or as an adjunct in those poorly responsive to antidepressants (Mather, et al., 2002). Most studies
involved volunteers following advertisement.
Physical treatments
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is highly effective in the short
term treatment of depression (I), acts quickly (II) and is more
effective than antidepressants (I), but relapse rates without continuation treatment are very high (I). Repetitive transcranial
magnetic stimulation (rTMS) may be effective in acute treatment but optimal treatment parameters are not clear (I) and
there is a lack of efficacy data extending beyond the acute period
of treatment. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) appears to be
more effective than usual treatment in the medium term for
chronic refractory depression of at least moderate severity (II)
with good stability of response over 2 years (III). Light therapy
(especially given in the morning) appears to be effective in the
short-term treatment of seasonal affective disorder and non-
seasonal depression (I) but there is no benefit in combining it
with antidepressants (I). There is a lack of data on sustained
benefit, but relapse after effective light therapy in seasonal affective disorder may be reduced by an antidepressant or CBT (II).
Sleep deprivation is associated with temporary improvement in
depressive symptoms but there is no evidence of persistent benefit
in the treatment of depressive episodes (II-III).
A systematic review (UK ECT Review Group, 2003) found
that ECT is significantly more effective in acute treatment than
sham treatment (six studies, effect size 0.91) and drug treatment (mostly TCAs and MAOIs, 18 studies, effect size 0.80)
although the latter rarely had a sham ECT condition. Bilateral
ECT is a little more effective than unilateral ECT (22 studies,
effect size 0.32) and high stimulus dose moderately more effective than low dose (seven studies, effect size 0.58). A subsequent meta-analysis looking at categorical outcomes (Pagnin,
et al., 2004) found superiority of ECT to TCAs and MAOIs
considered separately. Significant benefit occurs early with
54% of patients responding after three treatments in one
study (Husain, et al., 2004a). There are more limited longerterm follow-up data. In placebo-controlled relapse prevention
RCTs following ECT there is a 65–84% relapse rate on placebo
over 6 months contrasting with 18–60% on a TCA alone, 26%
on paroxetine and 39% on nortriptyline + lithium (Lauritzen,
et al., 1996; Sackeim, et al., 2001a; van den Broek, et al., 2006).
In comparative study arms nortiptyline + lithium was better
than nortriptyline alone (39% versus 60% relapse) (Sackeim, et
al., 2001a) and paroxetine was better than imipramine (26%
versus 47% relapse) (Lauritzen, et al., 1996). The primary limitation to treatment with ECT is short-term, and probably
longer-term, impairments in cognitive functioning, which may
have been underestimated by clinicians (Rose, et al., 2003)
although the data are heterogeneous and there are difficulties
in teasing out treatment effects from those attributable to the
course of illness. Bilateral (compared with non-dominant unilateral) ECT and higher stimulus dose are associated with
increased short-term cognitive deficits (UK ECT Review
Group, 2003). A prospective study found that bilateral and
sine wave treatments were significantly associated with adverse
cognitive outcomes at 6 months but that persisting depression
and patient characteristics were also predictive (Sackeim, et al.,
2007b). It is not clear at present whether, and if so to what
degree, optimisation is possible to maximise efficacy and minimise side effects. Little is known about prediction of response
to ECT, especially compared with alternative treatments and
ECT appears effective across the depressive subtypes (Sobin, et
al., 1996).
ECT is the most effective antidepressant treatment available
with a balance to be struck between short-term benefit and
potential longer-term adverse effects. Continuation treatment,
usually with medication, is necessary to reduce relapse. Because
of its high efficacy and rapid speed of onset of response, ECT
may be the treatment of choice for depression in the emergency
situation when symptoms are severe including intense and persistent suicidality, psychomotor retardation and/or psychotic
symptoms are prominent, and where there is reduced fluid
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
intake leading to clinically significant dehydration (Scott,
2005). In the non-emergency situation, ECT may be a treatment alternative for more severe depression if there are persuasive reasons to avoid pharmacotherapy but the high risk of
relapse if preventative treatment with medication is not possible needs to be taken into account. Strategies to avoid longerterm adverse effects need to be taken where possible, including
use of right unilateral electrode placement and individually
optimising current dose.
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)
involves focal stimulation of the superficial layers of the cerebral cortex using a rapidly changing magnetic field applied
using an external coil. A recent meta-analysis of 33 shortterm RCTs in depression (Herrmann and Ebmeier, 2006)
found a large significant effect size of 0.71 against sham treatment but the studies were small, heterogeneous in methodology
and effect size and it was not possible to identify any significant
predictors of outcome. Blinding of treatment is problematic
and the reported studies are vulnerable to bias. The most common effective methodology was left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex stimulation with frequencies of greater than 5 Hz and 100%
or more of motor threshold. There are few RCT data describing efficacy and relapse rates beyond the acute treatment
phase, which suggest possible short-term maintenance of effect
in patients continuing on antidepressants (Dannon, et al., 2002;
Koerselman, et al., 2004; Anderson, et al., 2007). rTMS
appears safe when used within published safety parameters.
Stimulation of the left vagus nerve (vagus nerve stimulation,
VNS) has been studied in one RCT in patients who had failed
to respond to between two and seven adequate treatment trials.
Active VNS was no more effective than sham treatment (15%
versus 10% response after 10 weeks, NNT 20) but it was argued
that this was a failed, rather than a negative, trial due to insufficient stimulus titration (Rush, et al., 2005). In a continuation
of the same study, after 12 months VNS treatment, more
patients had responded compared with a group of comparable
treatment-as-usual patients recruited using the same selection
criteria (27% versus 13%, NNT 7) (George, et al., 2005). In
open treatment there appears to be a high maintenance of
response over 2 years (60–75%) (Sackeim, et al., 2007a) compared with only 38% of 12 month responders maintaining
response at 24 months in a comparable treatment-as-usual
patient population (Dunner, et al., 2006).
Evaluation of studies of light therapy is problematic because
of wide methodological variation, often very short duration
(mostly one week) and lack of long-term data. Golden, et al.
(2005) identified 20 studies of bright light/dawn simulation
against ‘placebo’ (red light, rapid dawn or no treatment) in
major depression. For seasonal affective disorder (usually
recurrent autumn/winter depression) both bright light (eight
studies, effect size 0.84) and dawn simulation (five studies,
effect size 0.73) were effective. In non-seasonal depression
bright light used as sole therapy was effective (three studies,
effect size 0.53) but not when used as an adjunct to antidepressants (five studies, effect size 0.01). Tuunainen, et al. (2004)
identified 20 studies of light therapy in non-seasonal depression
(17 studies with major depression, 10 studies included bipolar
patients); in nine studies it was combined with sleepdeprivation and in 17 it was adjunctive to antidepressants.
Results were heterogeneous so only random effect sizes (taking
into account differences between studies) are presented here.
There was a small non-significant benefit to light therapy (18
studies, effect size 0.22) but larger and significant if confined to
morning light therapy (11 studies, effect size 0.43). In two studies without any adjunctive treatment there was a nonsignificant benefit to light therapy (effect size 0.64) with a smaller non-significant benefit if it was adjunctive to antidepressant
medication (14 studies, random effect size 0.24). Sleep deprivation and shorter studies (ie 7 days) tended to be associated with
a larger effect of light therapy.
In RCTs subsequent to the meta-analyses, light therapy in
seasonal affective disorder was found to have equally efficacy
to citalopram in a medium sized 8-week study (Lam, et al.,
2006) and to CBT and combined treatment in a very small 6week study (Rohan, et al., 2004) although CBT had a protective effect against relapse the following winter. In a relapse prevention study citalopram tended to protect against relapse better than placebo over 4 months in responders to 1 week of light
therapy (Martiny, et al., 2004) and prophylactic bupropion
(amfebutamone) has been shown to prevent relapse the following winter (Modell, et al., 2005). In non-seasonal depression,
variable quality small- to medium-sized RCTs have generally
favoured light therapy (Martiny, 2004; Epperson, et al., 2004;
McEnany and Lee, 2005) but efficacy in the elderly is unclear
(Tsai, et al., 2004; Loving, et al., 2005). In one study an advantage of five-weeks adjunctive light therapy was lost after continuing for a further four weeks on sertraline monotherapy
(Martiny, et al., 2006); another study found that light therapy
hastened response to citalopram over two weeks (Benedetti, et
al., 2003).
Taken together, studies suggest short-term benefit for light
therapy in seasonal affective disorder (where there is very limited evidence for antidepressant efficacy, see Evidence section
2.3) and as monotherapy, but not added to antidepressants, in
non-seasonal depression. Preliminary evidence in seasonal
affective disorder suggests that citalopram prevents relapse
and bupropion and CBT prevent recurrence the following
A review of sleep deprivation studies (Giedke and Schwarzler, 2002) concluded that about 60% of patients significantly
had improved the next day but that most relapse after a night’s
sleep. The effect of sleep deprivation may be prolonged by drug
treatment or it may hasten response to antidepressants but the
data are limited and the place of sleep deprivation is not
Complementary treatments
Hypericum extracts (St John’s Wort) are effective in the acute
treatment of mild and moderate major depression and appear
comparable in efficacy to antidepressants and well tolerated
(I). Apparent efficacy in milder depression probably reflects
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
methodological problems with older trials. Longer-term efficacy
and safety are not established and there is the potential to interact adversely with other medication including antidepressants.
Omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective adjunct when added to
current treatment in patients with major depression patients not
responding to antidepressants (I). There is a lack of evidence for
their use as monotherapy for major depression in adults but a
small positive trial in young children (II).
Extracts of St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) have a
long history of being used to treat depression but they are complex mixtures with varying composition depending on the
extraction method. A meta-analysis of 26 acute RCTs of
hypericum against placebo found an overall benefit but with
considerable methodological concerns including publication
bias (Linde, et al., 2005); there was only a small effect in better
quality studies of major depression (response rate 54% versus
46%, NNT 12–13) with a much larger effect in small studies
of more poorly defined depression (response rate 50% versus
8%, NNT 2–3). However, since then a further five placebocontrolled trials in major depression of moderate severity
have been published (Uebelhack, et al., 2004; Bjerkenstedt, et
al., 2005; Fava, et al., 2005; Gastpar, et al., 2006; Kasper, et
al., 2006). Combining these studies with those from Linde, et
al. (2005) yields a significant pooled benefit over placebo (17
studies, response rate 53% versus 35%, NNT 5–6). Results are
heterogenous with possible publication bias but the results are
essentially the same when restricted to larger and better quality
studies. No difference in efficacy between antidepressants and
hypericum is apparent in Linde, et al. (2005) (14 studies) or two
subsequent studies against SSRIs (Bjerkenstedt, et al., 2005;
Gastpar, et al., 2006). However, two further studies found
hypericum to be superior to SSRIs, the first against fluoxetine
although neither active drug separated from placebo (Fava, et
al., 2005) and the second non-inferior and statistically superior
to paroxetine in a non-inferiority trial (Szegedi, et al., 2005)
with maintained efficacy over a double-blind 4 month extension phase (Anghelescu, et al., 2006). Taken overall these
data suggest short- to medium-term efficacy for standardised
extracts of hypericum (in doses between 600 mg and 1800
mg) in major depression with at least equal efficacy to antidepressants. Evidence from earlier studies that hypericum may
have better efficacy in mild than moderate depression is most
likely due to methodological problems. Tolerability of hypericum appears better than with antidepressants and it seems generally safe (Knuppel and Linde, 2004; Linde, et al., 2005) provided its interaction potential with other medication including
antidepressants is recognised (Knuppel and Linde, 2004). The
drawbacks of hypericum are the availability of nonstandardised preparations and a lack of prospective long-term
efficacy and safety data.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids
(PUFAs) that are involved in neuronal, vascular and immune
functioning. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic
acid (DHA) have been studied individually and in combination
in treating unipolar and bipolar depression, usually as adjunctive treatment to antidepressants. Two meta-analyses, each of
eight RCTs (seven common to both) found a significant benefit
versus placebo (Freeman, et al., 2006; Appleton, et al., 2006)
(effect sizes 0.25 and 0.57, respectively) but the results were
heterogeneous with mixed patient populations and varying
PUFA compositions making conclusions difficult to draw. In
unipolar depression in adults there is a lack of evidence for
omega-3 fatty acids as monotherapy and an underpowered
negative study for DHA (Marangell, et al., 2003) but a recent
study found significant benefit for EPA+DHA in younger children (6–12 years) (Nemets, et al., 2006). There is some evidence
for the use of EPA or EPA+DHA/fish oil as adjunctive treatment in three RCTs in major depression not responding to
antidepressants (Nemets, et al., 2002; Peet and Horrobin,
2002; Su, et al., 2003). A primary care study of modest dose
omega-3 fatty acids supplementation of antidepressants did
not find an advantage over placebo supplementation; however,
very large improvements were seen in both groups (Silvers, et
al., 2005). There are no longer-term data in unipolar
2.3 Choice of antidepressant drug
Choice of drug has to be related to the individual patient
and many factors are based on clinical experience and judgement rather than controlled evidence. It is good clinical practice for potential or unknown risks to be minimised, for example, where there is medical illness (e.g. avoiding older TCAs in
patients with cardiac disease or those on hypotensive drugs
where there might be risk of falls), pregnancy (see Evidence
section 5) and previous history of overdose (drugs with lower
lethality are to be preferred).
Efficacy considerations
Antidepressant class: Antidepressant drugs have similar efficacy
in first line use for the majority of patients with depression (I).
In hospitalised patients amitriptyline may be marginally more
effective than other TCAs/ SSRIs, and older monoamine oxidase
inhibitors (MAOIs) may be less effective than imipramine (I).
Venlafaxine and escitalopram appear to be marginally more
effective than other SSRIs (I). For escitalopram at a dose of
20 mg this may be to a clinically significant degree for severely
ill patients (II).
In major depression with atypical symptoms, imipramine
appears to be less effective than phenelzine (I) but there is limited or lack of evidence for differential efficacy between MAOIs,
SSRIs, moclobemide and other TCAs (II). The evidence for
antidepressant efficacy in seasonal affective disorder is very limited with the strongest being for SSRIs (II). There is insufficient
evidence to choose between antidepressants on the basis of symptom profile, melancholia, comorbidity or psychosis (I–II) except
for one study in which sertraline was more effective than desipramine in major depression with comorbid obsessive-compulsive
disorder (II).
There is no consistent evidence for a clinically important
effect of gender on response to different antidepressants,
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
although younger women may tolerate TCAs less well than men
(I–II). There is a lack of compelling evidence that SNRIs are
more effective than SSRIs for painful symptoms associated
with depression (II). No clinically useful predictive biological
factors have been identifed (II).
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses suggest that the commonly available antidepressants have comparable efficacy in
the majority of patients seen in primary care or outpatient psychiatric settings (Anderson, 2001; Macgillivray, et al., 2003).
There is, however, a debate about whether some antidepressants may be marginally more effective than others with interpretation of the data complicated by uncertainty about what is
a clinically significant difference (see also Evidence section 2.1),
by issues of selective analysis and company sponsorship, treatment setting, antidepressant class versus individual drug, and
lack of power and assay sensitivity in most studies. A metaregression analysis involving 105 comparative RCTs did not
identify a pharmacological predictor of efficacy (Freemantle, et
al., 2000) but the classification of drugs was problematic; the
largest factor was company sponsorship, although this was not
statistically significant.
In a meta-analysis of 100 studies (Guaiana, et al., 2003) amitriptyline had a marginal advantage over other TCAs/SSRIs in
inpatients (NNT 24) but not in non-hospitalised patients. Inpatient status may reflect greater severity of depression but other
factors (e.g. type of depression, suicidality) could be relevant. A
meta-analysis of MAOIs (Thase, et al., 1995) found evidence
that phenelzine and isocarboxazid were less effective than imipramine in hospitalised patients (10 studies, response difference
14–20% NNT 5–7) but the quality of studies was variable. A
meta-analysis of individual patient data from 12 studies with
the reversible inhibitor of monoamine oxide A (RIMA), moclobemide, reported no significant difference in efficacy to imipramine and clomipramine in hospitalised patients, including those
with more severe depression or psychosis (Angst, et al., 1995).
With regard to newer antidepressants with more specific pharmacology, a focus of interest has been the relative efficacy of
dual acting serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors
(SNRIs) (such as venlafaxine, duloxetine and milnacipran) compared with SSRIs. Two recent meta-analyses of venlafaxine
compared with SSRIs with different study inclusion criteria
have come to different conclusions about relative efficacy, or at
least the size and certainty of any effect. Nemeroff, et al. (2007)
found a small advantage to venlafaxine (34 studies, remission
difference 5.9%, NNT 17), only significant against fluoxetine
when SSRIs were considered separately. By contrast, Weinmann, et al. (2007) had tighter exclusion criteria and found benefit for venlafaxine in only two of four outcome analyses in 17
studies, non-significant for remission (NNT 34) and final depression score but significant for response (NNT 27) and change in
depression score. Neither study found evidence of publication
bias. The dose of venlafaxine needs to be considered with limited
evidence for a dose response (Rudolph, et al., 1998) and for dual
action only at higher doses (above 150 mg) (Debonnel, et al.,
2007). A meta-analysis of milnacipran compared with SSRIs
found no significant difference in response rates (six studies,
60% versus 57.5% response) (Papakostas and Fava, 2007) and
neither has duloxetine been shown be more effective than
SSRIs (eight studies, 51.6% versus 51.4% response) (Papakostas,
et al., 2007c) although unpublished secondary analysis of
patients with initial HDRS >18 reported an advantage for
duloxetine over SSRIs (Thase, et al., 2003). A pooled analysis
of two comparative RCTs comparing venlafaxine and duloxetine found no significant difference in efficacy although duloxetine did not meet predefined non-inferiority criteria (Perahia, et
al., 2007). It is therefore not possible at present to generalise
about relative SNRI, or SNRI versus SSRI, efficacy. A recent
meta-analysis compared drugs acting on serotonin and noradrenaline with varying pharmacology (SNRIs, mirtazapine,
mianserin, moclobemide) against SSRIs and found a small significant benefit for the former (93 studies, 63.6% versus 59.3%
response, NNT 24) with similar sizes of effect for all drugs
except duloxetine which did not show any difference from
SSRIs; however the results appeared largely driven by the venlafaxine studies (Papakostas, et al., 2007c). Results for mirtazapine
against SSRIs are inconclusive (National Institute for Clinical
Excellence, 2004 appendix 19c). Further complicating the picture is the finding that escitalopram is significantly more effective than other SSRIs (eight studies, odds ratio 1.29) (Kennedy,
et al., 2006) but not significantly better than venlafaxine
although the odds ratio was similar in favour of escitalopram
(two studies odds ratio 1.23) (Kennedy, et al., 2006). The difference was, however, small and for all 10 studies together the relative response rates were 66% versus 62% (NNT 24) although in
secondary analysis in severely depressed patients the difference
was greater (68% versus 58%, NNT 10). Whether this finding
will hold up as further studies are done with escitalopram used
as a comparator rather than experimental drug remains to be
Whether different types of depression or symptom profiles
might guide choice of antidepressants remains largely unresolved. ‘Atypical’ depression is currently defined by mood reactivity (i.e. mood improvement in response to environmental
stimulation) and at least one associated symptom (from
increased appetite/weight gain, increased sleep, severe fatigue/
leaden heaviness of limbs, sensitivity to rejection as a personality trait) but historically there have been varying definitions
distinguishing it from ‘typical’ or ‘endogenous’ depression.
Thase, et al. (1995) found that the MAOI phenelzine was
more effective than TCAs in outpatients with varyingly defined
atypical depression (eight studies, 12% response advantage,
NNT 8–9) but not non-atypical depression (four studies, <1%
response difference). A recent meta-analysis restricted to atypical depression (Henkel, et al., 2006) confirmed a small advantage of phenelzine over imipramine (effect size 0.27) with no
difference between phenelzine/moclobemide and SSRIs (three
studies, effect size 0.02). Caution is needed in equating moclobemide with phenelzine and in generalising findings with imipramine to other TCAs. There are only a few studies comparing
other antidepressants; Joyce, et al. (2002) found nortryptyline
less effective than fluoxetine in a very small subset of atypically
depressed patients whereas a small study found fluoxetine and
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
reboxetine equally effective (Taner, et al., 2006); there is a lack
of evidence for SNRIs or other antidepressant classes.
In seasonal affective disorder (often associated with atypical
symptoms) there is very limited evidence for antidepressant
efficacy with a positive placebo-controlled study for sertraline
(Moscovitch, et al., 2004) and a suggestive study with fluoxetine (Lam, et al., 1995). Comparative (non-placebo-controlled)
data and relapse prevention data also suggest efficacy for
moclobemide (Partonen and Lonnqvist, 1996) and bupropion
(amfebutamone) (Modell, et al., 2005).
There are difficulties in the definition of melancholic/endogenous depression, which overlaps with severity and psychosis,
with psychomotor disturbance proposed as a key criterion
(Parker, 2000). It has been suggested that TCAs are more effective than SSRIs for major depression with melancholia but the
evidence is patchy with studies mostly retrospective, open or
using secondary analysis (Angst and Stabl, 1992; Tollefson
and Holman, 1993; Heiligenstein, et al., 1994; Parker, et al.,
2001; Navarro, et al., 2001; Parker, 2002; Joyce, et al., 2003b)
and we conclude it is insufficient to guide first-line choice of
There is limited evidence with regard to the treatment of
psychotic depression. A meta-analysis of 10 small RCTs (Wijkstra, et al., 2005) found evidence for a benefit from combined
antidepressant-antipsychotic over antipsychotic alone (three
studies, response 56% versus 30%, NNT 4), a non-significant
benefit for antidepressant-antipsychotic over antidepressant
alone (two studies, response 54% versus 37%, NNT 6) and a
lack of efficacy of antipsychotics over placebo (two studies,
response 32% versus 28%). The place of antiglucocorticoid
treatment with mifepristone is unclear as although there have
been positive studies (DeBattista, et al., 2006; Flores, et al.,
2006) three phase III studies failed to meet primary outcomes
(Nihalani and Schwartz, 2007; http://www.corcept.com/press.
In considering symptom profile rather than depression subtype, it has been suggested that improving activation and social
behaviour may be preferentially linked to noradrenaline-active
drugs and emotional reactivity (including anxiety and impulsivity) to serotonergic drugs (Healy and McMonagle, 1997).
While preliminary data were suggestive (Dubini, et al., 1997;
Katz, et al., 2004) an analysis of two RCTs of reboxetine
against fluoxetine found no reproducible difference in degree
of improvement of different symptoms (Nelson, et al., 2005a)
or in residual symptom profile (Nelson, et al., 2005b) as measured on the HDRS. This suggests a lack of clinically important differential effects but does not rule out more subtle effects
or differences in features not assessed with the HDRS.
Comorbid diagnoses have been little examined in predicting
response to different types of antidepressants. Comorbid anxiety disorders are especially common and antidepressants are
generally effective in their treatment although there is most evidence for SSRIs (Baldwin, et al., 2005). An exception may be
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) where an RCT in
patients with comorbid depression found sertraline was more
effective than desipramine (NNT 7–8) in treating both depressive and OCD symptoms (Hoehn-Saric, et al., 2000).
The apparently straightforward question as to whether gender influences response to different types of antidepressant is
complicated by age, menopausal status and tolerability considerations (e.g. Kornstein, et al., 2000). The literature is not
entirely consistent but there are small to medium size studies
suggesting that younger women may respond preferentially to
SSRIs over noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (TCAs, maprotiline, reboxetine) with predominantly no difference found for
men (Kornstein, et al., 2000; Martenyi, et al., 2001; Joyce, et
al., 2002; Baca, et al., 2004; Berlanga and Flores-Ramos,
2006). This appears to be accounted for by poorer tolerability
of TCAs in younger women (Kornstein, et al., 2000; Joyce, et
al., 2002; Baca, et al., 2004). Significant effects of gender were
not seen in aggregated studies comparing SSRIs with clomipramine in inpatients (Hildebrandt, et al., 2003), with the SNRIs
venlafaxine (Hildebrandt, et al., 2003) or duloxetine (Kornstein, et al., 2006) nor with bupropion (amfebutamone) (Papakostas, et al., 2007a). Some studies have suggested that women
respond better to SSRIs than men (e.g. Kornstein, et al., 2000;
Khan, et al., 2005b) but the lack of gender difference seen in a
large observational study of sertraline treatment in over 5,000
patients (Thiels, et al., 2005) argues against a clinically relevant
effect. Results are inconsistent as to whether men respond better than women to TCAs (Quitkin, et al., 2001). One retrospective analysis in a small group of patients reported that women
responded better to MAOIs than men (Quitkin, et al., 2001).
Pain symptoms are common in depression (Ohayon and
Schatzberg, 2003) and have been associated with poorer
response to treatment (Bair, et al., 2004; Karp, et al., 2005).
It has been proposed that SNRIs may be particularly effective,
and more effective than SSRIs, in treating pain symptoms
because of their dual action (Delgado, 2004). There is however
little evidence for a consistent advantage over SSRIs in RCTs
(Detke, et al., 2004; Goldstein, et al., 2004; Perahia, et al.,
2006; Lee, et al., 2007).
A variety of biological predictors of response to specific
antidepressants have been proposed including plasma amino
acid concentration (Moller, et al., 1986; Porter, et al., 2005),
dexamethasone suppression test status (Rihmer, et al., 1985;
Benkelfat, et al., 1987) and cerebrospinal fluid monoamine
metabolites (Timmerman, et al., 1987) but these results are
not practical or reliable enough to be useful clinically.
Tolerability/safety considerations
Older TCAs are less well tolerated than SSRIs with little overall
difference between newer antidepressants as assessed by treatment discontinuation in RCTs (I). There are significant differences in the pattern of adverse effects between antidepressants
(I–II) with the main group differences: (i) TCAs and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors – antimuscarinic side effects, dizziness
and sweating, (ii) SSRIs/SNRIs – gastro-intestinal, stimulatory
and sexual side effects, (iii) mirtazapine – sedation and weight
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Antidepressant (including SSRI) treatment is not associated
with an increased risk of completed suicide (I) and ecological studies find it is associated with decreased suicide rates (II). Antidepressant (including SSRI) treatment does not appear associated
with a clinically significant increased risk of suicidal behaviour in
adults (I) although individual sensitivity cannot be ruled out.
SSRIs may be associated with a small (<1%) increase in nonfatal suicidal ideation/behaviour in adolescents with a benefit-risk
ratio of >10 (I). TCAs and MAOIs as a group have greater toxicity and potential to cause death in overdose than SSRIs and most
other new antidepressants but there is variation within groups.
Lofepramine shows low toxicity and clomipramine and venlafaxine
intermediate toxicity (II).
Antidepressants differ in their side-effect profile, their potential to interact with other drugs and in safety in overdose.
Selected drugs are displayed in Table 5. In choosing between different drugs the ‘overall’ side-effect burden or tolerability determined from systematic reviews may be difficult interpret given
the different side-effect profiles. A review of antidepressant
meta-analyses in which the efficacy and tolerability of antidepressants introduced since 1980 identified 18 informative metaanalyses (Anderson, 2001), mostly of short-term treatment.
SSRIs are slightly better tolerated than TCAs overall (NNH for
side-effect related dropouts 33). There is a different side-effect
profile with significantly more nausea, diarrhoea, anorexia and
stimulatory side effects (agitation, insomnia and anxiety) on
SSRIs and more antimuscarinic side effects (dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, urinary disturbance), dizziness and sweating on TCAs. A recent meta-analysis of 29 studies in the elderly
found a similar result (Mottram, et al., 2006) and there is a generally increased rate of dropouts in the elderly compared with
younger adults (Anderson, et al., 2000). From limited evidence,
the newer TCA lofepramine causes fewer side effects (particularly
dry mouth, dizziness and sedation) than older TCAs (Anderson,
2001). A meta-analysis of 20 studies comparing SSRIs with other
newer antidepressants (venlafaxine, mirtazapine, bupropion)
found no difference in overall, or side-effect related, dropouts
(Gartlehner, et al., 2005). However, recent meta-analyses have
found slightly greater rates of discontinuation due to adverse
effects (NNH about 30), but not to all causes, on venlafaxine
compared with SSRIs (Weinmann, et al., 2007; Nemeroff, et
al., 2007). Data on sexual side effects were not consistently collected in earlier studies; more recent studies have shown a consistent picture of greater sexual side effects on SSRIs and SNRIs
than bupropion, reboxetine, mirtazapine, nefazodone and moclobemide (Montejo, et al., 2001; Gregorian, et al., 2002; Clayton,
et al., 2003; Thase, et al., 2005; Langworth, et al., 2006). There
may be differences between individual SSRIs with fluoxetine possibly causing more agitation and skin rashes, paroxetine more
sedation, sexual dysfunction, weight gain and discontinuation
reactions, and fluvoxamine more nausea and less sexual dysfunction (Anderson and Edwards, 2001). In short-term studies mirtazapine caused fewer dropouts due to side effects (NNH 25), but
not due to all causes, than SSRIs but is associated with sedation
and weight gain, the latter clinically significant compared with
other newer antidepressants (Leinonen, et al., 1999; Anderson,
2001; Masand and Gupta, 2002; National Institute for Clinical
Excellence, 2004 appendix 18c). With regard to the most recent
antidepressants, escitalopram appears as well tolerated as other
SSRIs (possibly better than paroxetine) and better tolerated than
venlafaxine (Baldwin, et al., 2007). Studies with duloxetine have
reported both equal and poorer tolerability compared with SSRIs
(Hudson, et al., 2005; Perahia, et al., 2006; Khan, et al., 2007;
Wade, et al., 2007; Lee, et al., 2007) but fewer sexual side effects
than paroxetine (Delgado, et al., 2005). In pooled data from two
studies against venlafaxine more patients on duloxetine discontinued overall, and due to side effects, (NNH about 20) (Perahia,
et al., 2007)
RCTs are probably not the best way to assess the impact of
tolerability in practice. Although data are limited, naturalistic
studies have supported a higher rate of switching to another
antidepressant with TCAs (including lofepramine) than SSRIs
although other reasons apart from tolerability may play a part
(Simon, et al., 1999b; Peveler, et al., 2005).
There has been considerable concern as to whether antidepressants, particularly SSRIs may be associated with an
increase in suicidal ideation or acts. Two meta-analyses (Gunnell, et al., 2005; Fergusson, et al., 2005) with 702 and 477
studies, respectively, and a large nested case-control study comparing new prescriptions of SSRIs and TCAs (Martinez, et al.,
2005) found no evidence of an increase in completed suicide
with SSRIs but possible evidence of increased suicidal/selfharm behaviour with SSRIs compared with placebo (NNH
684 and 754 in the two meta-analyses). There was no overall
difference between SSRIs and TCAs (Fergusson, et al., 2005;
Martinez, et al., 2005) but Martinez, et al. (2005) found some
evidence for increased self-harm behaviour on SSRIs compared
with TCAs in those under 19 years. A meta-analysis of 27
RCTs of SSRIs in children and adolescents with depression,
OCD and other anxiety disorders (Bridge, et al., 2007) found
no completed suicides but a small significant increase in suicidal ideation/self harm attempts with SSRIs compared with
placebo (NNH 143), not significant for each indication separately. However, the inferential and retrospective nature of
the ascertainment of ‘suicidality’ in these studies has been criticised (Klein, 2006).
To assess the risk of suicidal behaviour in clinical practice
database linkage methods have been used. The risk of clinically
significant suicidal behaviour was found to be highest in the
month before starting antidepressants and declined thereafter
with significantly higher rates seen in adolescents compared
with adults (Jick, et al., 2004; Simon, et al., 2006b). No temporal pattern of completed suicide was evident in the six months
after starting an antidepressant (Simon, et al., 2006b) and there
was no increase in suicide/suicide attempt seen with SSRIs
compared with other antidepressants in adolescents or adults
(Jick, et al., 2004; Simon, et al., 2006b). The highest rates of
suicidal behaviour were seen in patients treated by psychiatrists
but same pattern was also seen with psychological treatments
and in primary care (Simon and Savarino, 2007). Ecological
data has also failed to find any link between SSRI use and
higher completed suicide rates in adults and children/
5-HT2 +
α1 > SRI
5-HT2 > SRI
5-HT2 + α1+α2
5-HT2 +
5-HT3 + α2
Hypertensive crisis
with sympathetomimetics, oedema
Blood dyscrasia
Increased seizure
Increased seizure
Specific adverse
of hepatic
Abbreviations: DRI, dopamine reuptake inhibitor; M, melatonin agonist; NRI, noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor; RIMA; reversible inhibitor of monoamine oxidase-A; SRI, serotonin reuptake inhibitor;
5-HT2; 5-HT2 antagonist; 5-HT3; 5-HT3 antagonist; α1/α2α1 antagonist/α2 antagonist; ++, relatively common or strong; +, may occur or moderately strong; –, absent or rare/weak; ?, unknown/insufficient information
aThese refer to symptoms commonly caused by muscarinic receptor blockade including dry mouth, sweating, blurred vision, constipation and urinary retention; however the occurrence of one or more
of these symptoms may be caused by other mechanisms and does not necessarily imply that the drug binds to muscarinic receptors.
bThese are not licensed in the UK but are elsewhere in the world. A licence for agomelatine is being applied for in Europe.
These side-effect profiles are not comprehensive, have been compiled from various sources and are for rough comparison only. Details of drugs used and potential cautions and interactions should
be looked up in a reference book such as the British National Formulary (BMJ and RPS, 2007).
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors
Phenelzine, tranylcypromine,
Receptor antagonists
Sedation Insomnia/
Side-effect profiles and lethality in overdose of commonly used antidepressant drugs
Tricyclic antidepressants
Amitriptyline, dosulepin
Desipramine, nortriptyline
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
Citalopram, sertraline
Fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, paroxetine
Other reuptake inhibitors
Table 5
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
adolescents (Gibbons, et al., 2005; Gibbons, et al., 2006; Hall
and Lucke, 2006); in fact the association is generally for
increased SSRI use to be linked to lower suicide rates and
recent data from the Netherlands and United States shows an
inverse relationship between decreases in SSRI use and increase
in suicide in adolescents since warnings about SSRI use have
been issued (Gibbons, et al., 2007). Taken together the evidence indicates a lack of a specific link between antidepressant/SSRI use and suicide/suicidal behaviour in adults. There
is some evidence for a small increase in non-fatal suicidal ideation/self harm behaviour in adolescents treated with SSRIs but
not for completed suicide; indeed indirect evidence suggests
that SSRI use may reduce suicide rates. The risk-benefit analysis therefore needs to take into account the reality that suicidal
behaviour is relatively high in depressed adolescents before
treatment and that the increased chance of successful treatment
following an SSRI (NNT 10) outweighs the increased risk of
non-fatal self harm (NNH >100) by more than 10 times.
Antidepressant drugs are involved in 10–20% of drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales (Morgan, et al., 2004;
Cheeta, et al., 2004). The relative toxicity of individual drugs
in overdose can be investigated using the fatal toxicity index
(deaths by poisoning per million prescriptions). This method
cannot take into account potential confounds such as dose, frequency of overdose and type of patient. A number of studies
have examined the fatal toxicity index in England and Wales
between 1993 and 2002 (Buckley and McManus, 2002; Morgan, et al., 2004; Cheeta, et al., 2004). In cases where only antidepressants were mentioned, TCAs and MAOIs had the highest toxicity with about a 10- to 20-fold increase over SSRIs.
Within the TCA-related group there was a wide range of toxicity with desipramine (now withdrawn in the UK), amoxapine,
dosulepin (dothiepin), amitriptyline and imipramine having the
highest and lofepramine among the lowest with clomipramine
intermediate. Other newer antidepressants generally had low
toxicity apart from venlafaxine, which was intermediate; data
are not available for duloxetine. Of the SSRIs citalopram may
be associated with a greater tendency for cardiac toxicity than
other SSRIs in overdose (Isbister, et al., 2004). A prospective
study of 538 self poisonings (Whyte, et al., 2003) found that
venlafaxine and dosulepin were pro-convulsant in overdose,
TCAs were more likely to cause coma than SSRIs/venlafaxine
but less likely to cause serotonin toxicity. SSRIs were less likely
than TCAs/venlafaxine to prolong the QRS interval.
Concerns about the reasons for the higher venlafaxine fatal
toxicity index led to a review in the UK (Medicines and
Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority, 2006), which concluded that it is partly, but not completely, attributable to
patient characteristics and possible mechanisms include cardiotoxicity, seizures, serotonin syndrome/muscle toxicity and CNS
depression, but that the relative importance of these mechanisms could not be assessed. Caution was recommended in vulnerable patients (e.g. high arrhythmia risk, uncontrolled hypertension) and at doses ≥300 mg daily. TCAs are cardiotoxic,
mainly due to cardiac sodium channel blockade leading to conduction defects (Thanacoody and Thomas, 2005) and MAOIs
are dangerous in overdose and have interactions with tyraminecontaining foodstuffs and a variety of medications; toxic effects
including hypertensive crisis, serotonin and noradrenaline toxicity and central nervous system excitation and depression
(Bateman, 2003).
This is not a complete review of safety considerations and
adverse effects and the prescribing should be done in conjunction with a reference book such as the British National Formulary (BMJ and RPS, 2007); some others are considered in Evidence section 5.
Other factors related to antidepressant choice
Patient preference in treatment choice does not improve the
degree of improvement in depressive symptoms but may lead to
earlier improvement and less likelihood of switching antidepressant drug (II). Useful pharmacogenetic predictors of response to
different antidepressants are not available. There is very limited
evidence for personal and family history predicting differential
response to TCAs and MAOIs (III) with a lack of evidence for
newer antidepressants.
Patient preference has been relatively little studied. Three
studies incorporating a patient preference arm comparing antidepressants (Peveler, et al., 2005) or antidepressants with psychological interventions (Chilvers, et al., 2001; Lin, et al., 2005)
have not found that exercising preference improved eventual
outcome although there were fewer switches between antidepressants in those receiving their preference in one study (16%
versus 35%, NNT 6) and patients exercising preference had earlier improvement in another (Lin, et al., 2005).
Cost-effectiveness analyses highlight that drug acquisition
costs represent only a minor part of the overall cost of treatment, which change with time as drugs come off patent. A
review of cost-effectiveness is outside the scope of this review
and most of the evidence is based on modelling; there are few
prospective studies comparing antidepressants which have not
found consistent differences between different drugs (Simon, et
al., 1999b; Peveler, et al., 2005; Serrano-Blanco, et al., 2006).
Pharmacogenetics offers the possibility for predicting antidepressant efficacy based on functional variation in the targets
for drugs within the body but findings are not yet at the stage
where it is clinically useful. The most commonly studied has
been the serotonin transporter promoter gene (5-HTTLPR)
and a recent meta-analysis of 15 studies found that among
non-Asian subjects those possessing the less active short (S)
allelle responded less well to SSRIs than those with the long
(L) allele (NNT for S/S + S/L versus L/L about 10) (Serretti, et
al., 2007); however the largest study so far (STAR*D) was negative (Kraft, et al., 2007) and possessing the S allele did not
predict differential response to fluoxetine compared with nortriptyline in another study (Joyce, et al., 2003a). It is possible
that genetic effects on tolerability are also important, for example S-allele carriers have been reported to suffer more severe
side effects to paroxetine but not mirtazapine (Murphy, et al.,
2004). Another use of pharmacogenomics is to identify genetic
polymorphisms of drug metabolising enzymes that potentially
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
could identify individuals at risk of toxicity or lack of response
to specific drugs. However, at present there is lack of prospective evidence that testing can improve the risk-benefit ratio of
drug therapy (Eichelbaum, et al., 2006).
Previous response to a specific antidepressant might be presumed to be a useful guide to antidepressant choice in a new
episode but prospective evidence is lacking. Similarly there is
limited evidence as to whether family history of selective
response might guide antidepressant choice. A few small studies have suggested that differential response to a TCA or
MAOI tends to hold true for subsequent episodes and between
family members (Pare and Mack, 1971; O’Reilly, et al., 1994)
but there is no good evidence for modern antidepressants. In a
study of 45 responders to fluvoxamine 67% of first degree relatives were concordant for response (Franchini, et al., 1998) but
it is not clear that this is significantly higher than would occur
in a non-selected population.
2.4 Practical issues in acute management
Optimising outcome
In Evidence section 1.4 we considered the method of service
delivery; here we focus on individual prescribing practice.
Structured interventions involving planned follow-up improve
treatment adherence and outcome (I). Risk of self-harm during
antidepressant treatment is highest in the first month after starting treatment (II) and new suicidal ideation may arise (I).
Improved adherence with taking antidepressants can be achieved
by interventions that include drug adherence counselling, but not
by information leaflets alone (I). Once daily administration of
even short half-life antidepressants is as effective as multiple dosing (I) and may be associated with better treatment adherence
(II). The minimum effective dose of older TCAs is not established; in acute treatment RCTs doses below 125 mg are as
effective as higher doses and better tolerated (I), however more
severely depressed patients may benefit from higher does (II).
Side effects from antidepressant medication are related to dose
(I). Lower initial doses of antidepressants appear appropriate in
the elderly because of pharmacodynamic and tolerability considerations (III). In most depressed patients who have a sustained
response to antidepressants or placebo there is an onset of
improvement within the first two weeks (I). Early, nonpersistent, improvement in depressive symptoms appears unlikely
to lead to later sustained response (II). Therapeutic drug monitoring has only a limited role in the effective use of antidepressants (II).
Direct evidence for the optimum frequency of monitoring of
patients is lacking but structured interventions, including systematic follow-up, improve treatment adherence and outcome
(see Evidence section 1.4). A meta-analysis of 41 studies that
reported weekly HDRS scores found that the response to placebo was enhanced if there were a greater number of follow up
visits (Posternak and Zimmerman, 2007b) and a primary care
study found that systematic follow-up was as effective as a
more intensive depression care programme (Vergouwen, et al.,
2005). The risk of suicide attempts during treatment is highest
in the first few weeks (Jick, et al., 2004; Simon, et al., 2006b;
Simon and Savarino, 2007) and the need to monitor this risk
together with side effects and adherence to treatment indicate
that weekly monitoring is advisable in the first phase of treatment. A meta-analysis of 12 short-term studies found that 3%
of previously non-suicidal patients developed suicidal ideation
during treatment (Beasley, et al., 1991). Whether there is benefit from using standardised symptom ratings as opposed to a
clinical impression of depression severity/improvement has not
to our knowledge been directly tested but the former have been
integral to interventions improving outcome.
Patients report that educational materials are somewhat
helpful (Robinson, et al., 1997) but simply providing information about antidepressants or reminders about the need for
adherence appears largely ineffective in improving adherence
(Hoffman, et al., 2003; Vergouwen, et al., 2003). Adherence
counselling involving special educational sessions does improve
adherence to antidepressants although most studies have
included it as part of collaborative care (Vergouwen, et al.,
2003). A favourable attitude to medication and increased confidence in managing side effects predicted antidepressant
adherence in a primary care RCT (Lin, et al., 2003). A metaanalysis of 22 studies found no difference in either the efficacy
or the number of dropouts when an antidepressant was administered once a day or on multiple occasions, whether or not the
antidepressant had a short half-life (<12 hours) (Yyldyz and
Sachs, 2001; Yildiz, et al., 2004). A recent database study of
over 3000 patients found considerably better treatment adherence with once daily versus twice daily bupropion (McLaughlin, et al., 2007). Taken together these data support once daily
administration of antidepressants.
The dose formulation of most recent antidepressants means
that doses with established efficacy are given from the start.
There has long been a debate about effective doses of TCAs
with consistent evidence that they are not routinely prescribed
at recommended doses (≥125 mg of imipramine/amitriptyline
equivalents) in primary care (e.g. Dunn, et al., 1999). However
a meta-analysis of TCA studies found that low dose TCAs
(≤100 mg) were more effective than placebo (35 studies, NNT
4–6); higher dose studies were no more effective but caused
more dropouts (six studies, NNH 11) (Furukawa, et al.,
2002). In addition primary care cohort studies comparing
depressed patients treated with ‘less than recommended’ and
‘adequate’ doses and durations of antidepressant treatment
found no difference in clinical outcome between groups
although adequate doses may achieve faster improvement
(Simon, et al., 1995; Revicki, et al., 1998). The case may be
different in more severely ill patient as increased failure to
achieve full recovery has been described for ‘inadequately’ treated depressed hospitalised patients who had inadequate doses
and poorer medication adherence (Ramana, et al., 1999). This
does not exclude individual patients requiring ‘recommended’
TCA doses but the debate has largely moved on with the
increasing relegation of TCAs to second or third line treatment.
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
The incidence of side effects increases with dose (Bollini, et
al., 1999; Furukawa, et al., 2002). Clinical experience suggests
that upward titration of TCAs is advisable because of side effects
whereas most new antidepressants can be initiated at doses
shown to be therapeutic. Data are lacking about the optimal
rate of dose titration with 3–7 days commonly used in practice.
The elderly generally have higher plasma concentrations for a
given dose (Hammerlein, et al., 1998) and they have a higher
rate of side-effect related dropouts in RCTs (Anderson, et al.,
2000) so that lower doses of antidepressants are usually recommended (e.g. BMJ and RPS, 2007). If a patient appears to
respond to a ‘low’ dose of an antidepressant there is no controlled evidence about whether or not to continue dose titration;
limited evidence from continuation studies (see Evidence section
4.1) suggests that it is best to achieve a dose of proven efficacy if
possible, particularly in more severely depressed patients.
The existence of a delay in the onset of antidepressant
action has become an accepted belief but does not accord
with trial data and is likely to reflect time to appreciable
improvement rather than onset. A meta-analysis of 47 studies
found that 35% of the eventual rating scale improvement
occurred in the first week (Posternak and Zimmerman,
2005b). Significant antidepressant-placebo differences are
apparent in the first week (Stassen, et al., 1996; Posternak
and Zimmerman, 2005b; Taylor, et al., 2006) and substantial
improvement in the first 2 weeks (typically ≥25–30% reduction)
strongly predicts final response (Stassen, et al., 1996; Nierenberg, et al., 2000; Aberg-Wistedt, et al., 2000; Szegedi, et al.,
2003). Most (Nierenberg, et al., 1995; Szegedi, et al., 2003), but
not all (Quitkin, et al., 2003) studies find that only a minority
of those with lack of improvement in the first 2 weeks go on to
respond. By contrast, it has been suggested, using pattern analysis, that early abrupt improvement (before completion of 2
weeks treatment) in patients on both placebo and antidepressant drug treatment is less likely to be sustained than gradual
improvement after 2 weeks, and reflects a placebo response
pattern (Quitkin, et al., 1984; Quitkin, et al., 1987). It is difficult to fully reconcile these data, which may reflect separate
processes, one triggering a process of improvement occurring
more often with antidepressants than placebo and a second
variable fluctuation in mood state independent from the resolution of the underlying depression.
Therapeutic drug monitoring is an established procedure for
lithium and some anticonvulsants but is rarely used for antidepressants. It potentially has a use in assessing adherence or
where there is relatively low therapeutic index and/or a therapeutic window; in practice this applies to TCAs, either when
there is a high risk of toxicity or when there is lack of efficacy
and side effects despite adequate doses (Baumann, et al., 2005).
Managing specific adverse effects
Side effects tend to improve over time (I) with some, such as
nausea on SSRIs and SNRIs, usually short-lived (I) while
others, such as anticholinergic side effects on TCAs, appear not
to be (II). Management is primarily based on clinical judgement
with a lack of direct evidence. The main strategies are lowering
the antidepressant dose, switching drug, symptomatic treatment
with another agent or non-drug management of the side-effect.
Combining benzodiazepines with antidepressants early in treatment speeds response and reduces dropouts (I) and may be useful for managing early agitation/anxiety and insomnia but needs
to be balanced against the risk of long-term use. Beneficial strategies for sexual side effects are switching to an antidepressant
with a lower tendency to cause sexual side effects (II) and sidenafil for erectile dysfunction in men (I). Modafinil may improve
sleepiness in partial responders to SSRIs with fatigue and sleepiness but its effect on fatigue is unclear (II).
Antidepressants differ in their pattern of adverse effects
(Table 5, Evidence section 2.3) and managing side effects is a
common clinical necessity. This is complicated by the overlap
between symptoms caused by the drug and those related to the
depression. Many side effects are most troublesome at the start
of treatment and subside over time (Demyttenaere, et al., 2005)
presumably due to adaptation and possibly improvement in
depression. Nausea associated with SSRIs and SNRIs starts
almost immediately and lasts on average for a week before
reducing to near placebo levels (Greist, et al., 2004). The relative contribution of drug and condition can be difficult to
determine for some short term (e.g. agitation, sleep disturbance) and longer-term (e.g. sexual dysfunction, weight gain,
sleep disturbance and somnolence) complaints. Anticholinergic
side effects on TCAs have been reported not to diminish with
long-term treatment (Bryant, et al., 1987).
There is relatively little good evidence relating to the management of side effects and it is beyond the scope of this review
to go into individual adverse effects in detail. Reducing the
dose, slower titration, switching antidepressant to a drug with
less tendency to cause that side effect, non-drug management
and symptomatic treatment with another drug are common
clinical strategies. Sleep disturbance and anxiety/agitation
early in treatment can be treated with adjunctive benzodiapines. While not testing this indication directly a meta-analyis
(Furukawa, et al., 2001) found that combined treatment with
antidepressants and benzodiapines in major depression resulted
in more rapid symptom resolution than antidepressants alone
(nine studies, response at 4 weeks 63% versus 38%, no difference at 6 and 8 weeks) with a lower dropout rate. The risk is
that benzodiazepine use will continue into the long-term as has
been noted in surveys of psychotropic drug use (e.g. Valenstein,
et al., 2004). A systematic review of the treatment of sexual side
effects caused by antidepressant medication identified 15 RCTs
(Taylor, et al., 2005b); sidenafil use improved sexual functioning in men with erectile dysfunction (two studies) and single
studies found that switching from sertraline to nefazodone
was better than restarting sertraline and adding bupropion
improved desire frequency. A subsequent study found no benefit from adding bupropion for SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction (DeBattista, et al., 2005). A study combining data from
two RCTs of modafinil augmentation in patients with partial
response to SSRIs with persisiting fatigue and sleepiness found
an improvement of depression and sleepiness over placebo with
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
separation from week one but early benefit for fatigue did not
separate from placebo at endpoint (Fava, et al., 2007). We
could find no controlled evidence for managing weight gain.
3. Next-step treatments
3.1 Next-step treatments following inadequate treatment
response to an antidepressant
The chance of responding to a subsequent treatment declines
with each failed treatment trial (II). The likelihood of eventual
response decreases if there has been no improvement by 4 weeks
treatment (II) with only around 20% chance of remission at 12
weeks if there has been no improvement by 6–8 weeks (II). Lack
of a continuing trajectory of improvement beyond 3–4 weeks is
associated with lack of response by 12 weeks (II). There is no
clinically significant difference between younger adults and
elderly patients in the rate of improvement (II).
In clinical practice patients are encountered at different
stages in their illness and treatment history, which affects the
outcome of treatment. An important predictive factor in addition to severity and duration (see Evidence section 2.1) is the
amount of previous treatment. Definitions of treatment resistance vary although most describe it as a failure to respond to
two or more adequate antidepressant treatment trials (Anderson, 2003). However, problems arise in defining what comprises an adequate treatment trial, which drugs are to be
included and in taking account of psychological treatments.
The largest prospective study investigating sequential treatment
outcomes is the Sequenced Treatment Alternatives for the
Relief of Depression (STAR*D), which found that response
rates dropped from 49% to 16% and remission from 37% to
13% over four steps of treatment with early discontinuation
for side effects increasing from 16% to 30% (Rush, et al.,
2006a). Studies of next-step treatments are mostly small,
many are non-replicated and the stage of treatment resistance,
methodology and patient populations differ making conclusions difficult to reach. Only RCT evidence will be considered
as open studies are not interpretable.
When to decide that initial treatment has failed is by no
means clear and the evidence is limited by different study definitions and durations. It has been reported that if there is a
lack of improvement (defined as at least a 20–30% reduction
in HDRS in different studies) at 4 and 6 weeks, only 20% and
10%, respectively will go on to eventual response (≥50%
improvement) at 8 weeks (Nierenberg, et al., 1995; Nierenberg,
et al., 2000). A signal detection analysis of three studies with
different antidepressants found that non-improvement by week
6 identified ≥60% of non-remitters (HDRS >10) at 12 weeks
with a false positive rate of ≥20% and little difference between
antidepressant type (Sackeim, et al., 2006). By contrast, an
open study with fluoxetine reported that 23% of nonimprovers at 8 weeks still remitted by 12 weeks (Quitkin, et
al., 2003). Another study reported that late responders (occurring between 4 and 12 weeks) had continuing improvement
between weeks 3 and 4 whereas non-responders at 12 weeks
had failed to improve after 3 weeks (Trivedi, et al., 2005).
While the elderly may be a little slower to respond than younger adults this does not appear to be clinically significant
(Sackeim, et al., 2006; Mandelli, et al., 2007).
If a patient has not responded it is important to review
whether the diagnosis is correct, whether there are concurrent
medical or psychiatric conditions, and to check that the initial
treatment has been adequately given. Estimates of medication
non-adherence (either full or partial) differ widely with a
median figure of about 40% in different reviews (Cramer and
Rosenheck, 1998; Demyttenaere and Haddad, 2000). Identification of potentially remedial factors that are associated with
poorer response such as chronic social difficulties and continuing life events (Ronalds, et al., 1997; Mazure, et al., 2000) may
indicate therapeutic targets for intervention in addition to
3.2 Next-step drug treatment
There is a lack of direct evidence for the efficacy of increasing
the dose after initial treatment non-response. Indirect evidence
suggests there is a dose response for TCAs, venlafaxine and escitalopram (II) but not for other SSRIs.
Switching antidepressants, including to the same class, is
associated with a wide range of response rates in different studies
(12–70%) (I–II). The only switch strategy with some evidence
for enhanced efficacy is from an SSRI to venlafaxine (I). For
many antidepressants abrupt switching appears safe and well tolerated (II) but for some drugs (e.g. MAOIs to serotonin reuptake inhibitors and fluoxetine to TCA) there are dangerous
pharmacodynamic or pharmacokinetic interactions (III).
There is evidence for the efficacy of augmentation of antidepressants with lithium (I), some atypical antipsychotics (olanzapine, risperidone, quetiapine and aripiprazole) (I–II) and, equivocally, tri-iodothyronine (I) but not buspirone (II). The
combination of reuptake inhibitors with mianserin (I) and
SSRIs with TCAs/noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (II) does
not appear to be effective. There is possible, but insecure, preliminary evidence for efficacy for augmentation with mirtazapine,
tryptophan, methylphenidate, lamotrigine, modafinil, antiglucocorticoids and oestrogen (in perimenopausal women) (II). Augmentation with lithium and atypical antipsychotic is associated
with significant side effects (I–II).
If a patient does not respond it is important to make sure
that a dose of antidepressants that has been shown to be effective is being taken; determining plasma drug levels may be
helpful for older TCAs where therapeutic plasma drug ranges
have been described (Baumann, et al., 2005). The three main
drug strategies following non-response are: to (i) increase the
dose; (ii) switch antidepressant; or (iii) augment/combine with
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
a second agent. A serious problem is the lack of medium and
longer-term efficacy and safety data.
A systematic review found no consistent evidence for
increased efficacy after dose escalation in non-responders compared with continuing lower doses for SSRIs in seven RCTs
but, in most studies, the timing of dose increase was rather
early (3–6 weeks) (Adli, et al., 2005). Indirect evidence from
differential dose studies in non-resistant patients suggests a possible slightly greater efficacy for higher dose TCAs (200–300
mg imipramine-dose equivalent versus standard doses) (Adli, et
al., 2005), venlafaxine 225–375 mg versus 75mg) (Rudolph, et
al., 1998) and escitalopram (20 mg versus 10 mg) (Burke, et al.,
2002). In spite of the limited evidence, increasing the dose, provided side effects and safety allow, may be a reasonable step
especially as there is wide inter-individual variability in plasma
concentration of antidepressants and associated uncertainty
about what is an effective dose for an individual patient.
There are few RCTs with limited and differing methodology
investigating the efficacy of switching antidepressant (Anderson, 2003; Ruhe, et al., 2006). Placebo augmentation while
continuing the same antidepressant is associated with 20–40%
short-term response in non-responders to that point (Ferreri, et
al., 2001b; Carpenter, et al., 2002a). Switching to a second
SSRI in open studies and SSRI arms of RCTs shows widely
varying response rates (25–70%) (Ruhe, et al., 2006). Switching
from a reuptake inhibitor to an MAOI and from an SSRI to
venlafaxine is associated with short-term response rates >50%
in some studies with switches between other antidepressants
showing <50% response rates (Anderson, 2003; Ruhe, et al.,
2006) without a clear benefit between classes. Three studies
[including STAR*D (Rush, et al., 2006b)] with different methodology have randomised switching from an SSRI/predominantly SSRIs) to venlafaxine or another SSRI/predominantly
SSRIs) and pooling these gives a modest significant advantage
to venlafaxine (54% versus 45% remission NNT 13) (Ruhe, et
al., 2006). A comparison of switching to high (mean 309 mg)
versus standard (mean 148 mg) dose venlafaxine after SSRI
failure or intolerance found a tendency to faster and greater
response, but poorer tolerability, at the high dose (Thase, et
al., 2006). Switching to tranylcypromine in the STAR*D
study as a fourth stage treatment led to only a 12% response
rate (McGrath, et al., 2006a).
There are limited data on safe regimes for switching antidepressants. Direct switching (without washout) from an initial
SSRI to another SSRI, nortriptyline, mirtazapine, bupropion,
reboxetine, venlafaxine and duloxetine appears well tolerated
and may reduce discontinuation symptoms (Wohlreich, et al.,
2005; Ruhe, et al., 2006) and direct switching from citalopram
to sertraline, venlafaxine and bupropion was used in the
STAR*D study without apparent problem (Rush, et al.,
2006b). A small randomised open study found no difference
in the severity of discontinuation symptoms between a 3-day
and 14-day taper when switching from SSRIs to other antidepressants with significant discontinuation symptoms on shorter
acting SSRIs but not fluoxetine (Tint, et al., 2008). Potentially
toxic interactions need to be considered especially when the ini-
tial drug has long-lasting effects (e.g. fluoxetine to TCA,
MAOIs to serotonergic drugs) and it is recommended that
appropriate reference books are consulted, such as the British
National Formulary (BMJ and RPS, 2007) or the Maudsley
Prescribing Guidelines (Taylor, et al., 2007).
Adding a second agent tends to be called ‘augmentation’
when the drug is not primarily an antidepressant and ‘combination’ when two antidepressants are used. The strongest evidence remains for lithium augmentation of monoamine reuptake inhibitors; a recent meta-analysis of 10 small studies in
treatment-resistant depression found a response rate of 41%
versus 14 % (NNT 5) (Crossley and Bauer, 2007) with most
studies using lithium in the dose range 600–1200 mg. It is
unclear whether lithium added to non-reuptake inhibitors is
effective (e.g. Bruijn, et al., 1998). Lithium augmentation as
the second stage in a four-step treatment programme in inpatients resulted in a 59% response rate (Birkenhager, et al., 2006b)
but the results were disappointing in the STAR*D study when
lithium was added as a third stage treatment with only 16%
responding and a 23% rate of discontinuation due to side
effects (Nierenberg, et al., 2006). Patient characteristics with
high co-morbidity and degree of treatment resistance together
with unknown adequacy of lithium treatment (only ascertained
in 57% of patients, median concentration 0.6 mmol/L) could
contribute to these differences. A small study in elderly inpatients with major depression reported that lithium augmentation
after failure to respond to TCAs or venlafaxine was more effective than switching to an MAOI (response 47% versus 7%)
(Kok, et al., 2007).
A meta-analysis of augmentation of TCAs with triiodothyronine (T3), 25.0–37.5 μg, in four small RCTs of
treatment-resistant depression found significant benefit with
regard to improvement in HDRS score (effect size 0.6) but a
non-significant improvement in response rate (NNT=13)
(Aronson, et al., 1996). A small subsequent study found no difference between lithium, T3, the combination and placebo in 2week study in patients predominantly on SSRIs (Joffe, et al.,
2006). The STAR*D study found a non-significantly higher
response rate on T3 (25–50 μg) than lithium (23% versus 16%,
NNT 14) with significantly fewer patients discontinuing due to
side effects (10% versus 23%, lithium NNH 8) (Nierenberg, et
al., 2006)
The rationale behind combining antidepressants is to
broaden pharmacological action in the hope that multiple
actions will be of benefit. The combination of a TCA with an
MAOI was used historically for treatment-resistant depression
but there is a lack of controlled evidence for benefit and the
potential for dangerous interactions (Lader, 1983); however a
small RCT combining amitriptyline and moclobemide did find
greater efficacy than amitriptyline alone (Tanghe, et al., 1997).
The most common antidepressant combinations reported are:
(i) an SSRI with mirtazapine, reboxetine, bupropion or a
TCA; (ii) mirtazapine with a TCA or venlafaxine; and (iii)
mianserin with a TCA or SSRI (Rojo, et al., 2005). Clinical
experience and open studies indicate that tolerability and safety
are usually good but there is a lack of controlled data
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
examining the efficacy of most combinations (Rojo, et al.,
2005). Three small RCTs of mianserin added to a TCA or
SSRI in patients not responding to antidepressant treatment
were positive (Medhus, et al., 1994; Maes, et al., 1999; Ferreri,
et al., 2001a) but the fourth and largest with sertraline was not
(Licht and Qvitzau, 2002). A pooled analysis of mianserin augmentation of SSRIs shows a non-significant advantage to the
combination (three studies, response 66% versus 57%, NNT 13)
with significant heterogeneity. A small RCT of augmentation
by the related drug mirtazapine of predominantly SSRI nonresponders found it to be significantly more effective than placebo (Carpenter, et al., 2002b). There was no benefit from
combining fluoxetine and desipramine compared with increasing the dose of fluoxetine in patients not responding to fluoxetine (Fava, et al., 1994; Fava, et al., 2002b); a small study
claimed the same combination was more effective than either
drug alone in non-resistant patients (Nelson, et al., 2004) but
taking baseline severity differences into account no efficacy
advantage is apparent. Consistent with this, addition of the
noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, atomoxetine, was no better
than placebo in patients with incomplete response to sertraline
in a good sized study (remission 40% versus 38%) (Michelson,
et al., 2007). The results from STAR*D have cast limited light
on the relative efficacy of combinations. Bupropion augmentation of citalopram as a second stage treatment was better tolerated and marginally more effective than buspirone (32% versus
27% response rate and superiority on some secondary efficacy
outcomes) (Trivedi, et al., 2006a). Combined mirtazapine and
venlafaxine as a fourth stage treatment was non-significantly
better than the MAOI tranylcypromine in terms of response
(24% versus 12%) but led to significantly greater symptom
reduction and fewer side-effect related dropouts (McGrath, et
al., 2006a).
The efficacy of antipsychotics as augmenting agents has
received increasing attention. Two studies of typical antipsychotics did not find any benefit (Anderson, 2003) but a metaanalysis of 10 RCTs (published and conference presentations)
of atypical antipsychotic augmentation in patients failing to
respond to an antidepressants including olanzapine (five studies), quetiapine (four studies) and risperidone (two studies),
mostly added to fluoxetine or venlafaxine showed a benefit
for the combination (pooled response 57% versus 35%, NNT
5) (Papakostas, et al., 2007b) with no significant heterogeneity.
Discontinuation rates due to adverse effects were threefold
higher in the augmented versus placebo groups. A caution in
interpreting these results is that most studies are not peerreviewed and some studies were not comparisons of augmentation against continuing the original antidepressant. In two
large published studies olanzapine + fluoxetine tended to be
better than fluoxetine but was no better than continuing the
original antidepressant, nortriptyline (Shelton, et al., 2005) or
venlafaxine (Corya, et al., 2006). Two methodologically identical studies of olanzapine augmentation in patients historically
failing to respond to at least one antidepressant and to a prospective 8-week trial of fluoxetine found one study to be positive and one negative but when pooled, combined olanzapine +
fluoxetine was more effective than both fluoxetine (response
40% versus 30%, NNT 10) and olanzapine (response 40% versus 26%, NNT 7) (Thase, et al., 2007a). In a post-hoc analysis,
failure to respond to an SSRI in the current episode was associated with a significant benefit from the combination over fluoxetine but not if patients had failed an antidepressant from
another class. Taken together the olanzapine studies suggest
that maximum benefit from olanzapine augmentation of
SSRIs may be found when treatment failure has been limited
to SSRIs rather than TCAs or SNRIs. In a good sized study,
patients historically not responding to 1–3 previous antidepressants received 8-weeks, open prospective treatment with an
SSRI or venlafaxine. In patients with inadequate response at
8 weeks continuing on the same treatment aripiprazole was
more effective than placebo augmentation (response 34% versus 24%, NNT 10) and had good tolerability (Berman, et al.,
2007). Finally a small open randomised trial found quetiapine
augmentation more effective than lithium augmentation
(Doree, et al., 2007).
There are few data using antiepileptics as augmenting
agents in unipolar depression. A small RCT of lamotrigine +
fluoxetine compared with fluoxetine in patients non-responsive
to at least one previous treatment found significant benefit on
secondary but not primary outcome measures (response 77%
versus 40%, NNT 3) (Barbosa, et al., 2003) and a randomised
open comparison with lithium found a non-significantly better
response to lamotrigine (53% versus 41%, NNT 9) (Schindler
and Anghelescu, 2007). A small RCT of phenytoin versus placebo augmentation of antidepressants was negative (Shapira, et
al., 2006); we are not aware of RCTs of valproate or other
Buspirone augmentation of SSRIs was not effective in two
studies (Landen, et al., 1998; Appelberg, et al., 2001) although
a secondary analysis of more severely depressed patients did
report a benefit in one study (Appelberg, et al., 2001). The
STAR*D trial reported poorer tolerability and possibly slightly
poorer efficacy compared with bupropion augmentation (see
above, Trivedi, et al., 2006a). Pindolol (7.5 mg daily) augmentation of SSRIs is probably not effective in treatment-resistant
depression; two small studies were positive (Maes, et al., 1999;
Sokolski, et al., 2004) but three, including the two largest were
not (Moreno, et al., 1997; Perez, et al., 1999; Perry, et al.,
Manipulation of the glucocorticoid system may be of benefit in treatment-resistant depression but somewhat confusingly
both antiglucocorticoid treatment and steroid agonists may
have some efficacy (DeBattista, 2006). An RCT in nonresistant patients of 3-weeks treatment with the steroid synthesis inhibitor metyrapone added to nefazodone or fluvoxamine
found better response at 5 weeks compared with placebo (58%
versus 33%, NNT 4) (Jahn, et al., 2004) and a small RCT of
predominantly treatment-resistant patients found an advantage
over placebo to the addition of dehydroepiandrosterone
(DHEA) to ongoing treatment (Wolkowitz, et al., 1999).
The addition of stimulant-like drugs has sometimes been
used clinically but there is little controlled evidence. A small
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
RCT in non-responders to a variety of antidepressants showed
a non-significant advantage to methylphenidate over placebo
(response 40% versus 23%, NNT 6) (Patkar, et al., 2006) and
a very small study in the elderly found that methylphenidate
accelerated the response to citalopram (Lavretsky, et al.,
2006). Modafinil, which has an unknown mechanism of action
to reduce sleepiness, was significantly better than placebo in
partial responders to SSRIs with persisting sleepiness or fatigue
in pooled data from two RCTs (Fava, et al., 2007). Other strategies with preliminary evidence for efficacy in treatmentresistant patients are tryptophan addition, especially to
MAOIs (Anderson, 2003) and oestrogen in perimenopausal
women (Morgan, et al., 2005).
3.3 Next-step psychological treatment
There is limited evidence that augmenting with, or switching to,
CBT may be effective in antidepressant non- or partial responders (II).
There is very little direct evidence for the efficacy of nextstep psychological treatment. In the STAR*D study there was
no difference in overall outcome between CBT augmentation
and medication augmentation or CBT and medication switch
although medication augmentation worked faster (Thase, et
al., 2007b). In patients with significant residual symptoms addition of CBT to ongoing medication resulted in greater full
remission rates at 5 months than clinical management (25%
versus 13% NNT 8–9) but a non-significant difference in symptom ratings (Paykel, et al., 1999). However, a blindly rated
study comparing CBT with lithium augmentation in partial
responders to antidepressants found a non-significant advantage to the lithium group at the end of 8 weeks treatment,
which was significant after a further 4 weeks follow up after
both treatments had stopped (Kennedy, et al., 2003). As discussed in Evidence section 2.2 indirect evidence suggests that
combining antidepressants and CBT may be more effective
than each individually in major depression of at least moderate
and greater severity.
3.4 Next-step physical treatments
ECT is an effective short-term treatment and is more effective
than antidepressants (I). rTMS may be an effective short-term
treatment but is less effective than ECT for psychotic depression
(II). VNS may be an effective longer-term treatment for
patients with fewer than eight failed treatment trials (II). Ablative neurosurgery and deep brain stimulation (DBS) may be
effective treatments (III) but there is only early experimental
data for DBS.
The evidence for the general efficacy of physical treatments
has been reviewed in Evidence section 2.2; here we address
their use in depressed patients with treatment resistance.
Data are mixed as to whether treatment resistance is associated with reduced efficacy of ECT (Prudic, et al., 1996; van den
Broek, et al., 2004; Husain, et al., 2004b; de Vreede, et al.,
2005) but it is clear that medication-resistant patients can
derive significant benefit with 82% of patients responding
when ECT was used as the fourth step in a sequenced treatment study (Birkenhager, et al., 2006a). ECT has greater efficacy than antidepressants (UK ECT Review Group, 2003) but,
although many of these studies will have included patients who
had failed drug treatment, only four of the 18 studies in the
meta-analysis specified treatment-resistant patients. Of these,
two out of three trials against antidepressants did show a significant advantage for ECT but one against lithium augmentation did not (UK ECT Review Group, 2003).
Many of the studies of rTMS in major depression have
involved treatment-resistant patients. In comparison with
ECT, rTMS was less effective in psychotically depressed
patients in one study (Grunhaus, et al., 2000); in nonpsychotic patients three studies found equal short-term efficacy
(Grunhaus, et al., 2000; Grunhaus, et al., 2003; Rosa, et al.,
2006) and one found rTMS less effective (Eranti, et al., 2007).
VNS may be effective in treatment-resistant patients as discussed in Evidence section 2.2 but an open study did not find
a useful clinical response if there had been more than seven
previous failed treatments (Sackeim, et al., 2001b).
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an established neurosurgical treatment method for a range of neurological presentations,
including movement disorders, but as a therapy for depression
it is an experimental treatment supported by a small case series
(Mayberg, et al., 2005) and a case report (Jimenez, et al., 2005).
There are no RCTs or high-quality, published systematic
reviews of ablative neurosurgery for depression. Significant
clinical experience has accrued within the specialist centres
and narrative reviews are available describing the estimated
consolidated outcomes for a range of ablative procedures (e.g.
Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2000).
Exercise, light therapy and sleep deprivation are considered
in Evidence section 2.2.
3.5 Next-step ‘other’ treatments
Omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective adjunct when added to
current treatment in depressed patients not responding to antidepressants (I). Low folate status may reduce response to antidepressants and folate supplementation may enhance the efficacy
of antidepressants although relationship to folate status is not
clear (II). High intensity supervised exercise may be a useful
adjunct to antidepressant treatment in more severe major depression (II).
There is some evidence for the use of EPA or EPA+DHA/
fish oil as adjunctive treatment in three RCTs in depression not
responding to antidepressants (Nemets, et al., 2002; Peet and
Horrobin, 2002; Su, et al., 2003). A meta-analysis found that
low folate status is associated with depressive symptoms
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
(11 studies, odds ratio 1.42) (Gilbody, et al., 2007a) and in a
secondary analysis low serum folate in major depressed
patients not responding to open fluoxetine was associated
with a subsequent poorer response to dose increase or lithium/desipramine augmentation (Papakostas, et al., 2004). A
systematic review found folate more effective than placebo supplementation of antidepressants in two small studies of nonresistant major depression (NNT 5) (Taylor, et al., 2003). A
small study 10 days of endurance training was more effective
than stretching exercises as an adjuct to antidepressants in
moderately to severely depressed inpatients (Knubben, et al.,
4 Relapse prevention, treatment of relapse and stopping
A model of a reducing chance of relapse related to time in remission modified by individual risk factors is proposed (IV).
An influential model of the course of major depression proposes a continuum between depressive symptoms and major
depression with phases of treatment going through response
to remission that, if stable for 4–6 months, results in recovery
(Frank, et al., 1991). A return of depression is said to be
relapse before recovery and recurrence thereafter, and a distinction is made between continuation treatment to prevent relapse
and maintenance treatment to prevent recurrence. The assumption in the model is that a single depressive episode has a discrete duration followed by full remission; however this cannot
be directly measured, is likely to vary between individuals and
does not help in describing the return of major depression after
persisting partial remission or continuing depressive symptoms.
Although the model is helpful conceptually and in treatment
trial design the distinction between remission versus recovery
and relapse versus recurrence is often not possible and in this
guideline we use the single term ‘relapse’ to mean re-emergence
of significant depression. We propose a continuum model
based on the chance of relapse over time, which will vary by
individual depending on their risk factors and will influence the
benefit they are likely to receive from staying on antidepressant
4.1 Relapse prevention
Relapse rates are high in the months after remission and decline
with time (I). Other important factors associated with increased
risk of relapse including residual symptoms, number of previous
episodes, chronicity and severity of last depressive episode,
degree of treatment resistance and psychosis (II). In the elderly
a greater degree of comorbid medical illness is associated with
higher relapse rates (II). Antidepressants decrease the odds of
relapse by about 70% and this appears largely independent of
the underlying risk of relapse or type of antidepressant (I).
The highest risk of relapse after antidepressant discontinuation
occurs over the first 6 months (I). TCAs maintained at their
acute treatment dose are more effective than lower ‘maintenance
doses’ in prophylaxis (I). Weaker evidence suggests that minimum effective doses of SSRIs may be less effective than higher
doses in preventing relapse in recurrent depression (II). Lithium
may have similar efficacy in preventing relapse to antidepressants but evidence is limited (I). There are conflicting results
about the relative efficacy of combining lithium with an antidepressant compared with an antidepressant alone (I) but the combination may be more effective in patients who required lithium
augmentation (II) or are at high risk of relapse after responding
to ECT (II). Lithium reduces the risk of suicide compared with
antidepressants alone (I). After acute treatment with CBT there
is continuing protection against subsequent relapse over the next
1–2 years (I). From limited evidence this may be comparable to
continuation medication and better than discontinuing medication (II). Addition of CBT following initial antidepressant treatment increases the proportion of patients achieving full remission
and reduces the risk of relapse over the next 1–3 years in patients
with frequent relapse (I). Combining IPT with antidepressants
in acute treatment reduces short-term relapse (II) and subsequent continuation IPT combined with antidepressants may
reduce relapse compared with antidepressants alone (II). Continuation IPT monotherapy is less effective than antidepressants
in preventing relapse after acute combination treatment (I). The
efficacy of continuation ECT is as effective as drug treatment
over 6 months (II) and some patients may do better on continuation ECT and antidepressants than on drug treatment alone
over many years (II).
Rates of relapse following remission have been estimated as
20–24% by 2 months, 28–44% by 4 months, 27–50% by 6
months and 37–54% by 12 months from naturalistic follow-up
studies (Belsher and Costello, 1988). A staggered placebo discontinuation RCT following 12–14 weeks open fluoxetine
treatment showed a 49% relapse rate on placebo in the first
12 weeks and 23% in the following 12 weeks (Reimherr, et
al., 1998). A meta-analysis of discontinuation RCTs in patients
with mainly recurrent depression found that 60% of patients on
placebo relapsed in the year after randomisation and 29%
relapsed in months 12–36 (Geddes, et al., 2003). The risk of
relapse is increased by a number of factors including number
of previous episodes (Solomon, et al., 2000; Kessing and
Andersen, 2005), residual depressive symptoms (Paykel, et al.,
1995; Kanai, et al., 2003; Dombrovski, et al., 2007), depression
severity (Ramana, et al., 1995), longer episode duration
(Dotoli, et al., 2006; McGrath, et al., 2006b), psychosis (Flint
and Rifat, 1998; Kessing, 2003), degree of treatment resistance
(Rush, et al., 2006a), female sex (Kessing, 1998; Mueller, et al.,
1999; McGrath, et al., 2006b), social stress/poor social adjustment (Reimherr, et al., 2001; Kanai, et al., 2003) and lifeevents (Paykel and Tanner, 1976; Ghaziuddin, et al., 1990).
Age and age of onset does not appear to be a consistent factor
but the degree of comorbid medical illness appears associated
with a considerably greater relapse rate, which may be particularly applicable in the elderly (Iosifescu, et al., 2004b; Rey-
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
nolds, et al., 2006). It has been suggested that an early ‘placebo
pattern’ response is predictive of greater subsequent relapse
(Stewart, et al., 1998) but this has not been replicated (Nierenberg, et al., 2004; McGrath, et al., 2006b) and early response
may in fact be associated with lower relapse rates (Linden, et
al., 1997; Dew, et al., 2001; Nierenberg, et al., 2004). The risk
of relapse decreases as the duration of remission increases (Solomon, et al., 2000; Franchini, et al., 2000c).
Relapse prevention studies with antidepressants have shown
a consistent benefit from continuing treatment compared with
placebo, with the strongest evidence now from the newer antidepressants. Most modern antidepressants have data to at least
1 year and a meta-analysis of 31 RCTs found that antidepressants reduced the odds of relapse by 70% from 41% to 18%
(NNT 4–5) over 6–36 months with no difference between the
major classes of drug. Antidepressants had a slightly higher
rate of dropout than placebo (18% versus 15%, NNT 33)
(Geddes, et al., 2003). This reduction in odds appeared largely
independent of the underlying risk of relapse with similar
values for the first 12 months and months 12–36, in spite of
lower relapse rates in the latter period. The longest study to
date has lasted 5 years showing sustained benefit from antidepressants but in very small numbers (Kupfer, et al., 1992).
Consistent with the RCT data, naturalistic studies have found
that medication-adherent patients have better outcomes in
terms of relapse or time to relapse than those stopping antidepressants (Dawson, et al., 1998; Akerblad, et al., 2006). After
antidepressant discontinuation the greatest risk of relapse
occurs in the first 6 months (Thase, 2006) but continues out
to over 2 years (Frank, et al., 1990).
Relapse still occurs, however, in patients continuing to take
medication with a wide range of rates in published trials (Byrne
and Rothschild, 1998); this has been termed tachyphylaxis, tolerance or ‘poop-out’ (Solomon, et al., 2005). It is not clear if
this is a true loss of effect to the drug, a loss of placebo effect,
non-adherence or due to illness factors (Byrne and Rothschild,
1998; Thase, 2006). The long-term use of antidepressants may
be better conceived of as modifying risk or severity of depressive relapse rather than ‘curing’ depression. Patients with
greater adherence to medication do not necessarily have fewer
relapses than those with poorer adherence but the time to
relapse appears longer with fewer depressive symptoms overall
(Katon, et al., 2001; Akerblad, et al., 2006). A retrospective
study found that SSRIs were associated with slightly more
relapse than TCAs or venlafaxine (14% versus 4%) (Posternak
and Zimmerman, 2005a) but few studies have directly compared antidepressants and these are underpowered to detect a
difference. No difference has been found in relapse rates where
various different antidepressants were compared directly
(Lonnqvist, et al., 1995; Montgomery, et al., 1998; Walters, et
al., 1999; Franchini, et al., 2000a; Bump, et al., 2001) except in
one study in the elderly where phenelzine was better than nortriptyline or placebo (Georgotas, et al., 1989). The suggestion
that poop-out is specific to, or worse with, SSRIs than TCAs or
dual action drugs seems premature (Thase, 2006).
A staggered placebo discontinuation RCT following remission with open fluoxetine treatment in non-selected depressed
patients found significant benefit for continuing the antidepressant for 26 weeks following remission but not for longer (Reimherr, et al., 1998). A naturalistic study found a significant protective effect of antidepressants up to 8 months after remission
in patients with fewer than six lifetime episodes (Dawson, et al.,
1998) but continuing protection with highly recurrent depression. These studies are consistent with benefit from continuing
antidepressants for a minimum of 6–9 months seems sensible
after any episode of depression with persisting benefit in more
recurrent depression (Geddes, et al., 2003).
There is evidence that the concept of a lower ‘maintenance
dose’ to remain well is mistaken with TCAs and related drugs.
A 3-year study comparing relapse prevention with the TCA
dose required to treat the acute episode against halving the
dose found the lower dose less effective (Frank, et al., 1993),
maprotiline 75 mg was more effective than 37.5 mg over 1
year (Rouillon, et al., 1991) and nortriptyline maintained at
plasma levels of 80–120 ng/ml was more effective than 40–60
ng/ml over 3 years (Reynolds, et al., 1999b). A naturalistic
study also found that TCA dose reduction was associated
with more relapse than maintaining the same dose (Dawson, et
al., 1998). The case with SSRIs, where there is a lack of evidence of dose response, is less clear; paroxetine 40 mg was
more effective in preventing relapse than 20 mg over 28 months
(Franchini, et al., 2000a) but no difference was found between
50 mg and 100 mg of sertraline (Lepine, et al., 2004). Nevertheless an open study of increased doses of SSRIs after relapse
in patients with highly recurrent depression found 90%
responded and subsequently 55% relapsed again over the following 2 years but with a milder severity (Franchini, et al.,
2000b) suggesting greater protection at higher doses. A 2-year
study found that 60 mg of phenelzine was as effective as 45 mg
in preventing relapse (Robinson, et al., 1991).
Meta-analyses of lithium used as prophylaxis found a nonsignificant advantage for lithium over placebo in unipolar
depression (three studies, relapse 40% versus 63%, NNT 4–5)
(Burgess, et al., 2001) and no difference compared with antidepressants (six studies, depressive relapse 42% versus 36%)
(Cipriani, et al., 2006). The benefit of combining lithium with
an antidepressant over an antidepressant alone is not fully clear
with earlier studies finding no benefit (e.g. Prien, et al., 1984;
Johnstone, et al., 1990) but more recent studies in treatmentresistant patients responding to lithium augmentation (Bauer,
et al., 2000) or ECT (Sackeim, et al., 2001a) found the combination more effective than an antidepressant alone in preventing relapse. The previously cited study by Prien, et al. (1984)
found lithium less effective than imipramine in preventing
relapse after stabilisation on the combination. A metaanalysis found that patients on lithium had a significant 85%
reduction in suicide rate compared with those on antidepressants alone (eight studies 0.87% per year versus 1.48% per
year) (Guzzetta, et al., 2007) similar to that seen in bipolar
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
Hensley, et al. (2004) found that CBT performed better than
maintenance TCAs pooling data from three small RCTs and
after 1–2 years only 10% of patients on antidepressants remaining in remission compared with 35–50% of those who had
received CBT. Gloaguen, et al. (1998), incorporating poorer
quality studies reported an average 60% relapse rate for maintenance tricyclic antidepressants compared with 30% for CBT
over 1–2 years in eight studies. However, these studies had a
very high relapse rate on antidepressants compared with
placebo-controlled relapse prevention studies with antidepressants (Geddes, et al., 2003) raising questions about their generalisability and suggesting poor medication adherence. A recent
RCT found that acute responders to CBT (with ≤3 subsequent
booster sessions) were less likely to relapse over the following
year compared with acute responders to medication who had
their antidepressant withdrawn (31% versus 76%, NNT 2–3);
patients compliant with continuation antidepressants had a
42% relapse rate (Hollon, et al., 2005). Furthermore (mostly
small) studies have investigated the effect of adding a course
of CBT following initial improvement to medication and have
shown efficacy in achieving full remission and in reducing
relapse in those with recurrent depression, even if antidepressants are stopped (Paykel, 2007). A study of patients in remission found that augmentation with brief CBT significantly
reduced relapse compared with treatment as usual alone over
2 years but only in those with more previous episodes (Bockting, et al., 2005) (relapse 46% versus 72% in those with five or
more previous episodes, NNT 4, but 63% versus 59% in fewer
previous episodes); however the relapse rate on treatment as
usual and in those with fewer episodes appears very high.
Mindfulness CBT (MCBT) incorporates changing an individual’s awareness of, and relationship to, unwanted thoughts
and feelings. When given as an 8-week treatment during remission MCBT has also been found effective in reducing relapse in
the following year compared with treatment as usual (the
majority taking antidepressants) in patients with ≥3 previous
episodes but not those with fewer episodes in two studies
(NNTs 3–4) (Teasdale, et al., 2000; Ma and Teasdale, 2004).
Finally, a study of continuation CBT for 8 months following
acute response to CBT in patients with recurrent depression
reduced relapse over the following 16 months for those who
hadn’t achieved stable remission (Jarrett, et al., 2001). These
data provide support for continuing efficacy of CBT after
acute treatment but its relative efficacy compared with maintenance antidepressants is difficult to interpret.
Combining IPT with medication in acute treatment was
associated with better response rates and fewer relapses over
the subsequent 3 months (3% versus 25%, NNT 5), with numerical but not statistical benefit sustained to 12 months (13% versus 29%, NNT 7) (Schramm, et al., 2007). Relapse prevention
studies with continuation IPT as monotherapy after acute combination treatment with an antidepressant suggests a modest
(Frank, et al., 1990; Reynolds, et al., 1999a) or no (Reynolds,
et al., 2006) benefit compared with placebo. Continuation IPT
monotherapy over 2 years was more effective in patients remitting with IPT alone than those who needed combined IPT and
antidepressants acutely (relapse 26% versus 50%, NNT 4)
(Frank, et al., 2007). Over 3 years continuation IPT in combination with nortryptyline showed a trend to be better than nortriptyline alone after acute combination treatment (relapse 20%
versus 43%, NNT 4–5) (Reynolds, et al., 1999a). Continuation
IPT given more frequently than monthly did not enhance efficacy (Frank, et al., 2007).
Continuation ECT and nortriptyline + lithium were equally
effective in preventing relapse over 6 months in a recent RCT
(37% versus 32% relapse) (Kellner, et al., 2006), which is better
than the 65–84% relapse rate seen with patients maintained on
placebo (see Evidence section 2.2). A retrospective case-note
study found that the probability of patients remaining well
over 5 years on continuation ECT was 73% compared with
18% of patients acutely treated with ECT and then maintained
on medication (Gagne, et al., 2000).
4.2 Treatment of relapse
A significant proportion of depressive relapses appear selflimiting over 3 months (II). Increasing the dose of the current
antidepressant may be effective in the majority of patients (II).
There is a lack of evidence for other strategies.
The treatment of patients relapsing while continuing on prophylactic treatment is a major clinical problem. One issue is
whether to change treatment or persist with the current antidepressants. In a group of patients followed for up to 15 years
after an index episode of depression and not on antidepressant
therapy, 65% of those who relapsed did not seek treatment and
had a median episode duration of 13 weeks. Overall 52% of
patients (including those receiving and not receiving antidepressants) recovered in the first 3 months (Posternak, et al.,
2006b) suggesting that many patients have self-limiting episodes. We are not aware of any randomised data but open
studies of increasing the dose of the current antidepressant
(SSRIs/SNRIs) report 57–90% response rates (Fava, et al.,
1995; Franchini, et al., 2000b; Schmidt, et al., 2002; Fava, et
al., 2002a; Fava, et al., 2006). We are not aware of any studies
specifically looking at switching or combining drug treatments
after relapse; a small study found that 4/5 patients responded to
adding CBT (Fava, et al., 2002a).
4.3 Stopping antidepressant drug treatment
Discontinuation symptoms may occur on abruptly stopping all
classes of antidepressants with differences seen between classes
of drugs (I–III). The incidence appears more common with
higher doses (III) and longer duration up to about 9 weeks,
when it appears to plateau (II). They are usually mild (I) and
generally resolve rapidly with reinstatement (II). Among newer
drugs paroxetine and venlafaxine appear particularly associated
with discontinuation symptoms (I–II) with fluoxetine the least
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
(I). Symptoms begin within a few days of stopping and generally
subside within a week (I) but a minority of patients may experience severe or prolonged symptoms (III). The optimum rate of
taper to prevent discontinuation symptoms is unknown.
Acute discontinuation symptoms have been described with
all of the main classes of antidepressants including TCAs,
MAOIs, SSRIs, SNRIs and mirtazapine (see review by Haddad and Anderson, 2007). This needs to be distinguished from
dependence; antidepressant use lacks key features of the dependence syndrome including tolerance, dose escalation, craving
or compulsion (Haddad, 2005). In most patients discontinuation symptoms are self-limiting, of short duration but in a
minority of cases they can be severe and last several weeks
and there is the potential for misdiagnosis as relapse as depressive symptoms do occur (Haddad and Anderson, 2007; Tint, et
al., 2008). The mean time to onset of symptoms is about 2 days
with resolution usually after 5–8 days. Discontinuation symptoms are variable and differ between classes of antidepressants
but include sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal symptoms, affective symptoms and general somatic symptoms such as lethargy
and headache. In addition drugs inhibiting serotonin reuptake
are associated with sensory symptoms, such as electric shock
feelings and paraesthesiae and disequilibrium symptoms.
MAOIs may cause more severe symptoms including worsening
depression and anxiety, confusion and psychotic symptoms.
With most antidepressants, psychotic symptoms, mania and
extrapyramidal symptoms have rarely been reported (Haddad
and Anderson, 2007). The incidence varies between drugs, and
paroxetine and venlafaxine have been associated with high
rates whereas fluoxetine appears to have low rates, presumably
due to its long half-life (Haddad and Anderson, 2007; Tint, et
al., 2008). Higher antidepressant dose and longer duration are
more likely to lead to discontinuation symptoms but this
appears to plateau at about 8–9 weeks (Committee on Safety
of Medicines, 2004; Perahia, et al., 2005).
It is presumed that tapering is an effective strategy to minimise discontinuation symptoms but there is a lack of evidence
about this or the optimal rate of taper. A study randomising
patients on SSRIs/venlafaxine to a 3 day or 14 day taper
found a discontinuation syndrome in 46% of patients with no
difference according to rate of taper (Tint, et al., 2008). There
have been case reports where reintroduction followed by a
slower taper have been successful (Haddad and Anderson,
2007). Re-introduction of the same class of antidepressant
appears to suppress symptoms rapidly (Ruhe, et al., 2006)
and with SSRIs (or SNRIs) an option is to switch to fluoxetine
which can then be stopped abruptly due to its long half life.
The reasons for stopping antidepressants are complex and
depend on stage of treatment (Demyttenaere, et al., 2001).
Common reasons are patient choice, including feeling better
or dissatisfaction with efficacy or tolerability as well as the perceived need for continued prophylaxis. A factor that may not
be considered is the consequence of relapse if antidepressants
are stopped at a critical time in a person’s life (e.g. examinations etc) given that the highest risk of relapse is in the 6
months after stopping (see above). We are not aware of con-
trolled data on discontinuation of antidepressants after longterm use where there is also the issue of illness recurrence.
The optimum rate to taper drug dose is unknown with opinions
varying from a few weeks to 1 year (Greden, 1993).
5. Special considerations
5.1 Age
These have been reviewed as far as possible in the relevant sections, in particular Evidence sections 2 and 3 where efficacy of
antidepressants and alternative treatments are discussed. There
is a lack of evidence generally about next-step treatments, in
children and adolescents, in the elderly, and prevention of
relapse in children and adolescents. The elderly may also be
particularly prone to specific adverse effects, e.g. hyponatraemia associated with SSRIs (Jacob and Spinler, 2006).
5.2 Comorbid medical illness
Increasing severity of comorbid medical illness and painful conditions is associated with poorer response to antidepressants and a
greater risk of depressive relapse (II). SSRIs increase the risk of
upper gastrointestinal bleeding particularly when co-administered
with aspirin/non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (I). TCAs
may be associated with an increased risk of myocardial infarction
(MI) (II). SSRIs, mirtazapine and bupropion do not increase
the risk of cardiovascular events following MI (I–II).
The influence of comorbid medical illness on the outcome
of depression is considered briefly in Evidence sections 2 and 4,
with limited evidence suggesting a poorer response and greater
relapse with increased severity of medical illness, and a poorer
response with painful conditions (Bair, et al., 2004). We are not
aware of data indicating specific medical illness-related effects
on efficacy beyond this (Peveler, et al., 2002; Iosifescu, 2007)
and the greatest concerns are with safety, tolerability and drug
SSRIs are now known to decrease platelet aggregability and
activity, and prolong bleeding time with fluoxetine, paroxetine,
and sertraline the most frequently implicated (Halperin and
Reber, 2007) and non-SRI antidepressants should be favoured
in patients with bleeding disorders. Two recent systematic
reviews looking at the risk of SSRIs and upper gastrointestinal
bleeding with or without aspirin or non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) concluded that the evidence
for an effect of SSRIs alone was weak, but that combination
with NSAIDs greatly increased the risk compared with either
drug alone, and that the combination should be avoided or
ulcer-protective drugs should be used (Yuan, et al., 2006;
Mort, et al., 2006).
An area of interest has been the use of antidepressants in
people with cardiac disease because of the potentially cardiotoxic effects of TCAs and differing risk of fatality after overdose with different antidepressants as indicated by the fatal
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
toxicity index (see Evidence section 2.3 for discussion). TCAs
have been associated with about a doubling in the risk of myocardial infarction (MI) in two cohort/case control studies
(Cohen, et al., 2000; Tata, et al., 2005) but not in two others
(Meier, et al., 2001; Sauer, et al., 2003). The results are conflicting for SSRIs with increased (Tata, et al., 2005), decreased
(Sauer, et al., 2003) and unchanged (Meier, et al., 2001) risk
of MI found. In patients following an MI or suffering from
unstable angina, three SSRI studies with sertraline (Glassman,
et al., 2002), fluoxetine (Strik, et al., 2000) or mixed SSRIs
(Taylor, et al., 2005a) found no adverse effects on cardiovascular events or safety with some possible benefit in two (Glassman, et al., 2002; Taylor, et al., 2005a). Studies with mirtazapine (van Melle, et al., 2007) and bupropion (Rigotti, et al.,
2006) have also found no difference in cardiac events compared
with placebo when given post-MI.
It is beyond the scope of these guidelines to review specific
drug interactions, which should be checked with an appropriate
authority such as the British National Formulary (BMJ and
RPS, 2007). As a general principle, choosing an antidepressant
that is less likely to interfere with the metabolism of other
drugs is advisable in patients on multiple medications (see
Table 5).
5.3 Pregnancy and breast feeding
Pregnancy is not protective against onset or relapse of major
depression (II), which has adverse effects for both mother and
child development (II). Antidepressant use in pregnancy has
been associated with an increased rate of spontaneous abortions
and preterm labour (II). The balance of evidence is that there is
no general increase in foetal malformations with first trimester
exposure to TCAs (I) or SSRIs (I) except that paroxetine may
be associated with a small increased risk of cardiovascular
abnormalities (II). A small increased risk of persistant pulmonary hypertension of the newborn with SSRI-exposure after 20
weeks of pregnancy (II) needs replicating. A self-limiting neonatal behavioural syndrome with irritability, respiratory distress
and poor feeding may occur after third trimester TCAs (III)
and SSRIs, particularly paroxetine (II). Antidepressants vary
in the amount that gets into breast milk with limited data on
the effects on infant development (II/III). Serum lithium concentrations in infants are about a quarter of maternal levels
although from limited evidence adverse effects have not been
reported (III).
Major depression in the perinatal period often has an onset
during pregnancy (Stowe, et al., 2005) and in a naturalistic prospective study 68% of women on prophylactic antidepressant
medication who stopped treatment relapsed compared with
26% who continued treatment (Cohen, et al., 2006) suggesting
that pregnancy is not protective against depressive relapse. The
association between depressive symptoms in pregnancy and
adverse birth outcomes (e.g. premature delivery, low birth
weight) (Alder, et al., 2007) may be due to confounding factors
(Evans, et al., 2007) and evidence related to major depression is
limited. Nevertheless maternal depression is associated with
impaired mother-baby interaction, lower cognitive and social
function in the infant and increased behavioural and psychiatric problems in childhood (Mian, 2005) as well as the adverse
consequences of depression to the mother.
Many published data examining the effects of antidepressants in pregnancy are based on case reports, case series and
small controlled studies although increasingly registry studies
are being used. Nevertheless a major problem is controlling
for depression itself.
A meta-analysis of six cohort studies found that use of antidepressants was associated with a significantly increased rate of
spontaneous abortions (12.4% versus 8.7%) with no apparent
difference between class of drug (Hemels, et al., 2005) and a
recent small study found that prenatal antidepressant use was
associated with lower gestational age at birth and an increased
risk of preterm birth not accounted for by degree of depressive
symptoms (Suri, et al., 2007).
There is no evidence of an increased incidence of birth
defects associated with prenatal exposure to TCAs (Simon, et
al., 2002a) although short-term neonatal behavioural symptoms, such as jitteriness, hyperexcitability, and feeding problems have been noted in case reports (Haddad and Anderson,
2007). An association between clomipramine and neonatal convulsions and a neonatal behavioural syndrome was found in
the WHO database of adverse reactions but was not seen
with other TCAs (Sanz, et al., 2005).
Recent large case-control studies found no overall association between congenital malformations and first trimester SSRI
exposure in four studies (Malm, et al., 2005; Kallen and Otterblad, 2007; Alwan, et al., 2007; Louik, et al., 2007) and a slight
increase in a fifth (Wogelius, et al., 2006). Two studies found a
link between first trimester paroxetine and cardiovascular
defects (Kallen and Otterblad, 2007) or right ventricular outflow tract obstruction (Louik, et al., 2007); a link with cardiovascular defects with paroxetine was also found in another
database cohort study with an odds ratio of 1.82 (3.8% of live
births) (GlaxoSmithKline, 2005). SSRIs in the third trimester
are associated with a three times increased risk of a neonatal
behavioural syndrome, including respiratory distress, irritability and feeding problems; these are usually mild and selflimiting and seem most likely with paroxetine (Sanz, et al.,
2005; Moses-Kolko, et al., 2005). A recent case-control study
reported an increased risk of persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn in infants exposed to an SSRI after the
20th week of gestation (Chambers, et al., 2006) but the absolute risk is fairly low (about 1%) and the finding needs
Based on limited information, mirtazapine, bupropion, and
venlafaxine do not appear to be major teratogens; little or no
information is available on duloxetine (Way, 2007).
All antidepressants enter breast milk but the ratio between
infant and maternal plasma levels varies greatly. A pooled
analysis of 57 studies found that plasma levels of sertraline
and nortryptyline are usually undetectable in breastfed infants,
Evidence-based guidelines for treating depressive disorders with antidepressants
with paroxetine levels somewhat higher, but citalopram and
fluoxetine produced infant plasma levels above 10% of the
maternal plasma level (22% and 17%, respectively) (Weissman,
et al., 2004). Doxepin has been associated with respiratory
depression in case reports (Pons, et al., 1994). There are few
data available on long-term developmental outcomes; a small
study found no effect of fluoxetine or TCAs in breastfed
infants followed up to 6 years, whereas mothers’ depression
was associated with poorer cognitive and language achievement (Nulman, et al., 2002). Lithium is excreted in high levels
into breast milk and infant serum levels are about a quarter of
maternal levels (Viguera, et al., 2007). The usual recommendation is not to breast feed while taking lithium (Eberhard-Gran,
et al., 2006) although no adverse effects on infants were seen in
a small cohort (Viguera, et al., 2007).
We are very grateful to Susan Chandler for administrative support and
to Louise Allison for secretarial support. We thank David Nutt for his
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