Depression, which affects 17% of Americans,1,2 is remarkably responsive to antidepressant therapy, but only if the patient actually takes the medication. Many patients are reluctant to take antidepressants, creating very high rates of nonadherence. Failure to adhere to antidepressant therapy leads to some high-risk outcomes (Table 1). 3-9 Patients who are nonadherent during the first 6 weeks of therapy are at particularly elevated risk.3 Patients who adhere to antidepressant therapy early and continue to take medication as prescribed are more likely to recover from depression and avoid future relapse.4-6

Many patients who have chronic conditions are at elevated risk of depression. Some states include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart diseases, and myocardial infarction. Investigators have identified numerous barriers to adherence with antidepressants (Table 2).10,11 Because studies documenting comparative effectiveness among antidepressants are scarce, it is often difficult for clinicians to choose the “right” antidepressant for specific patients.12 For this reason, collaboration with patients, making patients partners in their care, is more important in this condition than in many others.

Pharmacists are generally aware that people may not recognize depression’s symptoms or may attribute their symptoms to aging or a physical complaint. This means that screening is very important. Pharmacists, because of their accessibility and the general public’s high level of trust in them, can ask questions that help patients realize that they may be depressed.13-15 Pharmacists can ask questions about symptoms, such as: Do you prefer to stay home rather than go out and do new things? Have you felt depressed, down, or hopeless in the past 2 weeks? Have you had any thoughts of suicide? How is your energy, and how is your sleep? Pharmacists should also listen carefully to the responses. Pharmacists can counsel that sometimes, those symptoms are associated with depression and responsive to treatment.13-15

Patients who express suicidal ideation need immediate referral to a mental health provider, of course. In this case, the counseling pharmacist needs to ensure that the patient connects with the provider immediately. Calling a family member or the local mental health outreach team is one way to do that. The National Institute of Mental Health has an interactive map that can help pharmacists find nearby mental health services for patients ( partner-activities.shtml).16


Clinical investigators have conducted a number of studies that have identified useful ways to improve adherence in patients who have depression. A recent randomized clinical trial, Treatment Initiation and Participation Program, used brief psychosocial interventions in middle-aged and older adults with newly diagnosed depression.15 Clinicians took 5 steps with patients who had new prescriptions for antidepressants. First, they reviewed symptoms and the proposed antidepressant regimen and assessed each patient’s potential barriers. Then they helped patients define a personal goal that would be more likely to be achieved if they adhered to their medication. Third, they educated the patients about depression and antidepressants. Fourth, they addressed barriers directly. Finally, they created an inherent strategy and ensured that the patients knew that they could talk to their primary care providers directly about treatment. Patients enrolled in the study who received the study intervention were 5 times more likely to maintain adherence rates of greater than 80% in the first 6 weeks. They were also more likely to sustain their high adherence rates for 3 months.15

Investigators from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently published a study that indicates that using a decision support tool, the Depression Medication Choice decision aid, helped clinicians collaborate with patients to select antidepressants that they would be more likely to take. The tool provides information about patients’ 5 most common concerns: sleep, weight change, sexual issues, cost, and stopping approach. The investigators found that the tool effectively engaged patients in the medication selection process, though it had no effect on adherence. This tool is also available digitally at!/. Its layout and colorful design make it easy to discuss options, and users can select medication and receive concise summaries.12


A final tool is familiarity with guidelines for treatment of depression. It is critical to align advice with the best available evidence and practices. This can be a daunting task, as numerous organizations have created guidelines, and many of them speak to specific populations (eg, cancer, obesity, or postmyocardial infarction). Table 3 lists several that can be extremely useful. They can be found at

Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP, is the assistant director of the Office of Pharmacy Professional Development at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. 


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