Antidepressants: depression medications in the UK

Find out more about antidepressants and the role they can play in helping you to overcome depression.

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Page medically reviewed by Dr William Shanahan, Medical Director and Clinical Director of Addictions (BAO, BCh, DCH, D'OBS, FRCPsych, MB), Priory Hospital Roehampton, in May 2023.

Depression is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people in the UK. It can make it difficult to carry out your day-to-day activities and can have a negative impact on your quality of life. However, there are a number of treatment options available for depression, which can help you to get back on track. One of these is depression medication, or antidepressants.

Here, we will explore antidepressants in more detail and answer some frequently asked questions.

What are antidepressants?

Antidepressants are prescription medications that are used to treat depression, including clinical depression. They work by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are involved in regulating things like sleep, appetite and mood.

There are many different types of antidepressants, and you will be prescribed the one that best fits your needs and symptoms – a decision that will be made with your doctor or other medical professionals. This will also take into account whether you’re experiencing any other difficulties alongside your depression, such as anxiety or insomnia.

Antidepressants can also sometimes be used to treat other mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), with ruminations and intrusive thoughts
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder

However, it's important to understand that antidepressants don't address the root cause of your condition or provide long-term solutions. Instead, they provide short-term relief, which can allow you to better engage in therapy or other forms of treatment.

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Types of antidepressants

Some medications used to treat depression include:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs work by blocking the reuptake of serotonin. This increases levels of serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can have an impact on lots of different bodily functions and systems. These include sleep, digestion and memory. Serotonin is also widely known as being one of the brain’s ‘happy chemicals’, because it appears to be able to influence mood and how we process emotions.

Research shows that high levels of serotonin in the brain are linked to elevated mood and feeling happy. On the other hand, low levels of serotonin are linked to the symptoms of depression, including feeling sad, upset and generally low in mood.

Therefore, SSRIs can improve a person’s mood by increasing the levels of serotonin in their brain.

Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)

SNRIs work in a similar way to SSRIs, by blocking the reuptake of neurotransmitters that are linked to mood. In the case of SNRIs, the focus is on the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin. Increasing the levels of these chemicals in the brain can improve mood and reduce depression symptoms.

Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)

TCAs are an older type of antidepressant that also help to increase levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. They are not usually prescribed as a first line of treatment for depression because they can cause some unpleasant side effects. They are also more dangerous in the event of an overdose.

However, they might be prescribed to someone who has not responded to other antidepressants. They may also be recommended for other conditions, such as OCD and bipolar disorder.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)

MAOIs work by blocking the enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain. This helps to increase the levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which can improve mood. However, people who take MAOIs have to have a strict diet because this medication can be dangerous when interacting with certain foods. Therefore, they only tend to be prescribed to people with treatment-resistant depression.

What is the most commonly prescribed antidepressant?

SSRIs are the most commonly prescribed antidepressant. They are usually the preferred choice over other antidepressants because they cause less side effects.

Examples of SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram (Celexa). Sertraline is the most common depression medication used in the UK. It can be used to treat depression and anxiety, and is considered to be effective for both.

Possible side effects of antidepressants

Like most medications, antidepressants can cause side effects. Some common side effects of depression medication include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach aches
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Sexual problems

However, not everyone who takes medication for depression will experience side effects. Even if you do, they will often improve over time as your body gets used to the medication. If you find that you're experiencing unpleasant or significant side effects, it’s important that you speak to your GP. They'll be able to review your medication to see whether a different dose or another antidepressant would be better for you.

Other treatment methods for depression

Antidepressants can be an important part of depression treatment, but they’re just one tool in a wider treatment plan. Antidepressants aren’t a cure for depression.

That’s why it’s important that SSRIs are used alongside other treatment approaches, such as therapy, lifestyle changes and self-care techniques.

Therapy aims to help you address the underlying issues that are contributing towards your depression. By talking to a mental health professional, you'll be able to learn coping strategies, develop healthy thought patterns and gain an insight into your emotions and behaviours. This can help you to manage your symptoms and improve your wellbeing. The talking therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), is a common therapeutic technique used to treat depression.

Lifestyle changes can also play an important role in treating depression. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and getting enough sleep can all contribute to a healthier mind and body, helping you to cope better with depression. Also, self-care techniques, such as mindfulness and breathing exercises, can also help you manage stress and improve your mood.

At Priory, our depression treatment experts will work with you to create a comprehensive treatment plan, helping you to get back on track.


Discover some commonly asked questions about antidepressant medication.

Can you drink on antidepressants?

It's recommended that you don't drink alcohol when you’re taking antidepressants. This is because alcohol can interact with your medication, making side effects worse or meaning it's not as effective. Also, alcohol is a depressant, so it can actually make your depression symptoms worse.

How long does it take for antidepressants to work?

It usually takes 1 to 2 weeks for antidepressants to start working. It's important that you continue to take your antidepressants as prescribed, even if they don’t make you feel better straightaway. If you don’t notice any improvements after 4 weeks, talk to your doctor about potentially changing your medication or dosage.

How does the weather affect you when you take antidepressants?

Some antidepressants, especially TCAs, may impact on your ability to regulate your body temperature. This means that in a heatwave, antidepressants may make more people prone to heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke and heat exhaustion. They might also be more sensitive to hot conditions, meaning they sweat more and are more prone to fainting and sunburn.

If you’re taking TCAs during hot weather, it’s important that you stay out of direct sunlight, use a high factor sun cream, drink plenty of water and don’t do any strenuous activity.

What shall I do if I think my antidepressant dose is wrong?

If you don’t think your antidepressant dose is working, or if it’s causing side effects, it’s important that you speak to your GP or psychiatrist. They may adjust your dose or switch you to a different type of antidepressant that might be more suited to you. However, it’s important that you don’t stop taking your medication without speaking to a doctor first.

How long do I have to take antidepressants?

The length of time that someone has to take antidepressants varies depending on the person and their symptoms.

In general, doctors recommend taking antidepressants for at least 6 months after your symptoms improve. This helps to prevent you from relapsing. However, some people may need to take them for a longer period of time.

Can I switch my antidepressants?

It’s possible for you to switch antidepressants. If you’re experiencing unpleasant side effects or your symptoms don’t seem to be improving, talk to your doctor about trying a different type of antidepressant. They may gradually decrease your current medication while starting you on a new one.

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