Do antidepressants work? The answer is yes. Find out how the media got the science wrong.

As someone whose life has been saved by taking antidepressants for depression, I’ve been incensed and frustrated by the dominant media narrative of the last several years, the one that says “antidepressants work no better than  a placebo.”

Fortunately, Mind the Brain blog has set the record straight. In this essay just published on PLOS (the Public Library of Science where I spend my days), psychologist James Coyne places the “antidepressant wars” in scientific context. He then introduces psychiatrist Adrian Preda’s blog post which demonstrates how uneven coverage of competing meta-studies on the effectiveness of antidepressants has put patients at risk.

The good news? Antidepressants do help people with mild, moderate and severe depression.  But don’t take my work for it, read this excellent analysis on  Mind the Brain blog, part of of PLOS BLOGS Network.

I’ve excerpted it here and provide a link to the full post below.

The Antidepressant Wars, a Sequel; How the Media Distort Findings and Do Harm to Patients

By James Coyne PhD
Posted: December 26, 2012

Clinicians and patients are eager to know if antidepressants are effective and journalists recognize a hot topic when they see one. Media journalists play a crucial role in communicating scientific findings to professional and lay audiences, but their goals in doing so are not limited to conveying best-evidence assessments of often complex and contradictory findings, and also include attracting readership to  themselves and their media outlets.

As in other journalism, there’s often a reason to suspect that exaggeration and distortion gets introduced into science reporting in order to generate buzz. The goal of preserving necessary complexity is often no match for opportunities for publicity-grabbing hype. Recently, a producer of a TV news story about antidepressants told a well-known psychiatrist-researcher colleague of mine “You really make sense, but what you say would so complicate what I have to say,” and left him out of the story.

Scientists frequently become frustrated when they see their messages twisted in media reports, but we need to realize that journalists don’t work for us, they work for the media and themselves. Some scientists know that and play to the media, spinning interpretation of their finding in the scientific literature so that they are media-ready from the get go. A recent study demonstrated that apparent media distortion of science often starts with distorted scientific articles, and particularly those with hyped and exaggerated abstracts.

Psychiatrist Adrian Preda’s guest blog post hits on the all too familiar theme of supposedly dispassionate and objective science authors pitching exaggerated claims about antidepressants (back and forth) to responsive journalists in ways that leave clinicians and laypersons confused and ambivalent about important decisions concerning medical treatment. Clinicians are left contending not only with their own confusion, but that of patients who come back to them question past decisions.

I have blogged a number of times elsewhere about a psychologist mentioned in Dr. Preda’s blog post, Irving Kirsch. I noted how even a seasoned and award-winning television media person was left bewildered interviewing him for CBS Sunday Morning News when he claimed that antidepressants did not significantly improve patients’ depression better than a placebo pill. In the lively exchange that followed, I further showed that if we were to adopt his arbitrary criterion for ‘significantly better,’ we would have to accept not only that antidepressants does not work, but the psychotherapy does not either, and that many medical treatments widely seen as effective actually are not. A recent detailed dissection of the statistical malpractice in Kirsch’s analyses probably will not dampen his repetition of his claims or their echoing in the media.

And now in a case of what Yogi Berra would call “deja vu all over again” Adrian Preda reports on another episode of conflicting interpretations of the data concerning the efficacy of antidepressants getting further confused and selectively reported in the media. To paraphrase his quote from psychiatrist Michael Thase, I’m sure there’s no last word here. – Jim Coyne

How the Media Distort Findings and Do Harm to Patients

by Adrian Preda MD

 Central to the perspective I present in this blog post is my work supervising psychiatric residents and medical students at a university-based psychiatry clinic where our patient population includes a good number of adults suffering from mild to moderate depression.

Click here to read the full post

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