Placebos Might Be Almost as Effective as Antidepressants in Teens, According to Science

Updated: Oct. 09, 2017

Could a fake pill be as beneficial as powerful antidepressant drugs? When the fake pill lacks the serious side effects of real medication—and is still effective—it sure can, says science.

depressionSabphoto/ShutterstockDepression is a silent but vicious plague that targets people of all ages. But the mood disorder is especially problematic for teens—which is why it’s important to know the symptoms of teen depression. One of the difficulties is that the medications—although they work—carry some serious side effects and risks, including suicidal behavior. Now, new research suggests that a placebo treatment may work almost as well as powerful antidepressants.

In a review of previous research—known as a meta-analysis—psychologists from the University of Basel in conjunction with Harvard Medical School and the American National Institute of Mental Health compiled the results of 36 drug trials that included data from over 6,500 children and teens. The results of the meta-analysis, which was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, revealed that a placebo could actually be more beneficial than many antidepressant drugs in treating depression. (Here are hidden facts about depression.)

How is the fake as good as the real thing? The researchers checked the abilities of antidepressants and placebos against most common mental disorders in teens and children, including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While the data suggests that, overall, antidepressants are more effective than placebo for treating these conditions—and especially depression—the difference is slight and side effects of the active drugs are enough of a concern—they range from headaches to suicidal ideation—to make the placebo approach attractive in treating depression, the study authors told Science Daily.

If your child suffers from a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety disorder, talk with their doctor before trying a new form of treatment. The researchers warn that placebo treatment needs more study in terms of use before it can replace depression and anxiety disorder medications. “It’s important to examine the relationship between clinical benefit and possible side effects in consultation with the doctor treating the patient,” says Dr. Cosima Locher from the Division of Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy at the University of Basel’s Faculty of Psychology and one of the lead authors of the study. And if depression runs in your family, check out what you should know about the depression gene.