We aimed to compare the antidepressant and anxiolytic effects, tolerability and effects on quality of life of mirtazapine and citalopram in a randomized, double-blind, multicentre, 8-week study. Patients with a Major Depressive Episode (DSM-IV) and a baseline score of > or = 22 on the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS) were randomized to 8 weeks treatment with either mirtazapine (n = 137, 15-60 mg/day) or citalopram (n = 133, 20-60 mg/day). Efficacy was evaluated by the MADRS, Hamilton Anxiety Scale (HAM-A), Clinical Global Impression scales (CGI), the Leeds Sleep Evaluation Questionnaire (LSEQ) and Quality of Life Enjoyment and Satisfaction Questionnaire (QLESQ). The efficacy analyses were performed on the Intent-To-Treat Group using the Last Observation Carried Forward method. Vital signs and laboratory variables are measured and adverse events recorded at each weekly visit. The magnitude of reduction from baseline in group mean MADRS scores was large in both groups, reaching after 8 weeks of treatment mean scores of 9.1 in the mirtazapine group and 8.9 in the citalopram group. Both treatments also resulted in a substantial improvement in anxiety symptoms, sleep disturbances and quality of life, and high percentage of responders. However, at day 14, statistically significantly larger magnitudes of change favouring mirtazapine were present in the group mean MADRS, HAM-A and CGI-Severity of illness and Quality of life scores. A difference of 2.3 points on MADRS favouring mirtazapine is considered indicative for a clinically relevant superiority between two proven antidepressants. Mirtazapine treatment was also related to faster improvement of sleep, quality of sleep and improved alertness following awakening, as shown by statistically significant differences on the self-rating LSEQ at various time points. There were no differences between two treatment groups on self-rating QLSEQ. Both drugs were well tolerated, with a low number of patients in either group prematurely terminating the study due to adverse events (mirtazapine: 3.6%, citalopram, 3.0%). Sweating and nausea were statistically significantly more frequent in the citalopram group and increased appetite and complaints of weight increase in the mirtazapine group. There were no clinically relevant changes in laboratory parameters and vital sign variables with either treatment, except for clinically relevant increase in body weight, occurring more frequently in mirtazapine patients. In this study, mirtazapine and citalopram were equally effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and well tolerated. However, mirtazapine was significantly more effective than citalopram after 2 weeks of treatment on the MADRS, HAM-A and CGI Severity of illness and Quality of life scales. This finding, consistently present at all major efficacy variables, suggests potentially faster onset of efficacy of mirtazapine over citalopram.