Is cognitive therapy enduring or antidepressant medications iatrogenic? Depression as an evolved adaptation

Am Psychol. 2020 Dec;75(9):1207-1218. doi: 10.1037/amp0000728.


Patients treated to remission with cognitive therapy are less than half as likely to relapse following treatment termination as patients treated to remission with antidepressant medications. What remains unclear is whether cognitive therapy truly is enduring or antidepressant medications iatrogenic in terms of prolonging the life of the underlying episode. Depression is an inherently temporal phenomenon and most episodes will remit spontaneously even in the absence of treatment. There is reason to believe that depression is an adaptation that evolved because it keeps organisms focused on (ruminating about) complex social issues until they can be resolved and that medications work not so much by addressing a nonexistent deficit in neurotransmitters in the synapse as by perturbing underlying regulatory mechanisms to the point that they reassert homeostatic control over those systems. If the latter is true then medications may work to suppress symptoms in a manner that leaves the underlying episode unaddressed and patients at elevated risk of relapse whenever they are taken away. Cognitive therapy is predicated on the notion that people become depressed because they misinterpret life events in a negative fashion and that helping them examine the accuracy of their beliefs will relieve their distress. Such an approach would not work if patients were not capable of thinking clearly (if their "brains were broken") and it is likely that cognitive therapy works by making rumination more efficient so as to facilitate the resolution of the complex social issue(s) that brought the episode about. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / drug effects*
  • Antidepressive Agents / adverse effects*
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy*
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease*
  • Male


  • Antidepressive Agents