When Someone does not experience remission from major depression, we need to ask ourselves why, and come up with new solutions. This discussion will focus on the treatment of these individuals by first explaining what symptoms predict poor response to treatment and what symptoms of major depression result in the most psychosocial dysfunction.
What Causes Functional Impairment in Major Depression
From the STAR*D study we know that only 50% of patients respond to the first antidepressant treatment and only 33% achieve remission. An important question is why, or more specifically what factors result in poor outcomes.
Contrary to popular belief the medications we use to treat depression work well for some neurovegetative symptoms. Symptoms such as sleep, and appetite improve but the most debilitating symptoms often remain. Consistently Anhedonia and concentration are rated by patients with depression as the most debilitating. These cognitive symptoms such as trouble concentrating, difficulty planning, and poor attention lead to dysfunction at home and work.
Cognitive Symptoms Impair Work Performance
We all need to work to live, and depression is a leading cause of disability and poor work performance worldwide. What we know is that subjective measures of cognitive dysfunction are a better predictor of workplace performance than total depression severity. Someone with more severe overall depression scores may perform better at work than someone with perceived cognitive dysfunction from depression. This is one possible reason for a lack of improvement as many treatments do not address cognitive symptoms.
Anhedonia makes everything Worse
Possibly the most debilitating symptom of depression is anhedonia. Anhedonia is defined as loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities. A strong predictor of poor antidepressant outcome is the loss of interest. Making anhedonia a primary target of treatment would be wise if we want to improve outcomes in depression.
We have additional evidence that indicates how important anhedonia is for psychosocial function. Functional improvement is strongly associated with improvement in anhedonia. The improvement in anhedonia had a larger effect on psychosocial function than overall symptomatic response.
Emotional Blunting Effects on Treatment Outcomes
While people do not want to be depressed, they also do not want to be emotionally dull. Unfortunately, we know that emotional blunting is reported in nearly half of all depressed patients on antidepressants. This appears to be common to all monoamine antidepressants with bupropion having the lowest reported risk. Emotional blunting cannot be totally accounted for as just a side effect of treatment, it’s also a symptom of depression. However, the point remains the same emotional blunting results in poorer quality of remission.
Doctors Are Too Medically Oriented
The world of psychiatry is very different from other medical specialties. Psychiatry is really art based in science and if you try to approach mental health treatment from a strictly scientific basis you will never help anyone. When patients and physicians are asked to rank the symptoms of depression, they believe are most important, the lists do not match up.
Patients focus on restoration of positive affect by ranking things such as meaning and purpose in life, enjoyment in life, satisfaction with oneself as the top three most important things to address in depression. Clearly what should stand out to you here is that medication is unlikely to improve any of these factors.
Doctors rank depressed mood, hopelessness, and anhedonia as their top three symptoms to address. These symptoms are far better addressed by medication than the ones listed by patients although you could argue that hopelessness and anhedonia are difficult to treat with medication.
The effect of Loneliness on Health Outcomes
I’ve talked about this before and it continues to be a major concern in our modern world. We are the most connected we have ever been as a society with the advent of social media and the internet, yet no one feels connected. This is an existential crisis for all of us and I haven’t heard many good solutions. Time and time again we go back to the same things such as the internet and social media to feel connected and they continue to let us down. Not only is this emotionally taxing, but it’s also effecting our physical health as well. Here is yet another example of something that is very important for depression treatment outcomes that medication cannot fix.
What does this all mean? Should we stop attempting to use medication for the symptoms of depression? For me these findings indicate we need to screen more carefully for these specific symptoms that result in poor outcomes. We need to improve our psychosocial treatments to help people address ways to enhancing meaning and purpose in their lives. We need to recognize the limitations of medications. Medications have a place and do address some of the symptoms associated with depression, they just aren’t the ones patients believe are most important in their lives.