Treating Depression Without Medication: Is Self-Help Enough?
Whether or not to take medication for depression can be a big decision, and many people wonder if treating depression without medication is possible. Self-help strategies can be incredibly effective in beating depression; however, is self-help for depression enough?
The answer to whether or not depression treatment without medication is possible is a resounding maybe. Every individual is unique, and depression is experienced differently by different people. For some, self-help is enough, so treating depression without medication is possible. For others, medication is needed. What follows is a look at medication, self-help, and their abilities and limitations.
Medication for Depression and What it Can and Cannot Do
Depression medication has a purposeful function. It restores the biochemical balance within the brain by affecting, among other things, the neurotransmitters that can play a role in depression: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (Luciani, 2007).
When severe, treating depression without medication usually isn’t effective or even recommended. Medications soothe the brain so therapy or self-help techniques, or both, can be more successful.
Medication works on the brain and can restore balance. Medication can’t, however, directly improve the way people think and feel and act. Medication alone usually can’t completely treat depression.
Self-Help for Depression and What it Can and Cannot Do
Self-help isn’t just one single thing that someone does but rather is a host of things done to decrease depression symptoms and increase quality of life. Depression self-help is about actions taken to improve someone’s life. Self-help also involves paying attention to thoughts and perspectives in order to make them more realistically positive. Self-help techniques are about lifestyle changes and can encompass every area of someone’s life (5 Best Books on Depression You Must Read).
Taking depression medication might make self-help techniques easier, but medication doesn’t do the true healing work for someone. Therefore, when depression is mild, or sometimes even moderate, treating depression without medication is possible.
That said, there are times when self-help isn’t enough and medication is needed to restore the biochemical balance discussed above. Preston (2004), describes times when treating depression with medication is necessary. When:
- Despair is deep and debilitating
- Depression interrupts life by making it impossible to work and interfering in relationships
- Someone experiences sleep problems (even if other symptoms of depression are mild, sometimes a doctor might prescribe sleep medication)
- Someone is very apathetic and lethargic
- Someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts
Please note: If you are having suicidal thoughts, go to an emergency room (or have someone take you) or call/chat online with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK ).
Strategies for Treating Depression without Medication
Whether or not to take medication for depression is an individual decision that is best made with a doctor or mental health professional. With or without medication, self-help can be valuable in treating depression. In Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You (2010), Richard O’Connor provides some self-help techniques that are practical and in reach of anyone:
- Take care of yourself (Depression Self-Care for When You’re Really Depressed).
- Make priorities; what would you most like to improve? Determine how you’ll get there, and take small steps every day.
- Pay attention to your thoughts in order to notice negative thinking and change it.
- Practice mindfulness by being fully present in the moments of your life; pay attention to what you are doing and let negative thoughts go.
- Look for heroes, people to admire and emulate to help you answer the question, "How do I want to be?"
- Cultivate connections and intimacy by reaching out to others even when it’s hard.
- Keep practicing; overcoming depression is a process, sometimes a long one. The more you practice the things that work for you, the smaller your depression will become (10 Things to Help with Depression).
- Get help when you need it. Reaching out for support from friends, family, professionals is part of self-help because you’re doing what you need to do to feel better. And that includes taking medication.
Treating depression without medication can be possible. The best way to know if it’s right for you is to consult with a mental health professional. He or she can help determine the severity of your depression and whether or not medication can be useful.
Depression medication can be used to augment your self-help strategies. Or, self-help strategies might be enough in treating your depression. With or without medication, seek and use self-help strategies that work for you, and you’ll eventually rise above depression.
Last Updated: 15 October 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD