The small specific effects of antidepressants in clinical trials: what do they mean to psychiatrists?

Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2011 Dec;13(6):476-82. doi: 10.1007/s11920-011-0235-x.


Although antidepressants continue to be a mainstay for clinicians who treat people suffering from depressive disorders, there have recently been articles published in both the scientific literature and the popular press that have raised questions about the utility of this class of medications. This paper briefly examines recent meta-analyses that have reported small drug versus placebo differences in randomized controlled trials and, from the perspective of a prescribing psychiatrist, discusses the clinical significance of these findings. It is concluded that antidepressants do have relatively modest effects (as compared with placebo) in contemporary randomized controlled trials, and that the contribution of placebo-expectancy factors to individual outcomes is often underestimated. Nevertheless, it is also concluded that the modest benefits of antidepressants in grouped datasets obscure large, specific, and very meaningful therapeutic effects for 10% to 20% of those treated with antidepressants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / standards*


  • Antidepressive Agents