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Depression Treatment: Is a Placebo as Good as a Pill?

Last updated:

December 21, 2011

A small new study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry asserts that people with depression do just as well when taking a placebo as when taking one of two common antidepressants or undergoing one type of talk therapy.

Researchers assigned 156 depression patients to three groups -- taking a placebo, taking setraline, or completing a regimen of supportive-expressive therapy -- for 16 weeks. Researchers found that 31 percent of those on real meds, 28 percent of those in therapy, and 24 percent of those taking placebos responded to treatment. Those numbers don't show a significant difference between any of the types of treatment.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Jacques P. Barber, the lead researcher, found the results surprising.

But even Barber isn't saying that it's worthless to treat depression.

First, he noted that taking a placebo as part of a clinical study isn't exactly the same as not seeking treatment -- study participants still had nice doctors and nurses asking them questions about their well-being, which might be helpful in itself.

Also, the study tested only two drugs (some participants switched from sertraline to venlafaxine halfway through the study) and one particular form of talk therapy.

David Mischoulon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, agreed that you shouldn't see this as proof that "nothing works for depression."

"I think it's the opposite," he said. "It's more that, everything seems to work to some degree."