Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most widely prescribed antidepressant class today and exert their antidepressant-like effects by increasing synaptic concentrations of serotonin (5-HT). The rat forced swim test (FST) is the most widely used animal test predictive of antidepressant action. Procedural modifications recently introduced by our laboratory have enabled SSRI-induced behavioral responses to be measured in the modified FST. The use of this model to understand the pharmacological and physiological mechanisms underlying the role of 5-HT in the behavioral effects of antidepressant drugs is reviewed. Although all antidepressants reduced behavioral immobility, those antidepressants that increase serotonergic neurotransmission predominantly increase swimming behavior whereas those that increase catacholaminergic neurotransmission increase climbing behavior. The 5-HT(1A), 5-HT(1B/1D) and 5-HT(2C) receptors are the 5-HT receptors most important to the therapeutic effects of SSRIs, based on extensive evaluation of agonists and antagonists of individual 5-HT receptor subtypes. Studies involving chronic administration have shown that the effects of antidepressants are augmented following chronic treatment. Other studies have demonstrated strain differences in the response to serotonergic compounds. Finally, a physiological model of performance in the rat FST has been proposed involving the regulation of 5-HT transmission by corticotropin releasing factor (CRF).