students on antidepressants

‘I wouldn’t be here without them’: How antidepressants changed these students’ lives

‘I’d be a sobbing mess on the floor if I didn’t have Sertraline’

TW: This article briefly mentions sexual assault.

Everywhere you look, you’ll probably see someone debating the existence of antidepressants. To be fair, it’s usually the “drugs bad” camp who also think vaccines give you cancer. A study published over the weekend (23rd July) by scientists at UCL found there’s “no clear evidence” to suggest depression is caused by an imbalance of serotonin (AKA the mood-stabilising chemical) in the brain. This basically hints at antidepressants potentially having a placebo effect, or just giving people more serotonin when they didn’t lack any in the first place.

Maybe it’s time to look at things with a bit more nuance: Antidepressants can be absolutely life-saving for some, while having little effect on others. But if a person sees it as a last resort, or something to make them feel a little better, who are we to decide they’re wrong? The stigma needs to end.

I spoke to eight students and graduates about their experience with SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) at uni, to see how the medication affected their lives:

‘I physically couldn’t function without them’ – Charlotte

students on antidepressants

“I think the common misconception with antidepressants is that they’re literally *just* for depression,” recent graduate Charlotte tells me. “In actuality, they deal with a lot of other complex mental health issues as well.”

The 25-year-old had been struggling with treatment-resistant OCD, and had been prescribed SSRIs to help her cope throughout uni. “While antidepressants held me back a little bit – often making me sleepy and late to lectures – I genuinely don’t believe I’d be able to get through uni, get my degrees and even be alive today without them.”

‘I don’t think they worked that well for me’ – Eve*

Throughout her studies, Eve* quickly realised her anxiety, depression and CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) were becoming uncontrollable, particularly after a sexual assault. “I became really lethargic, I didn’t really feel like myself,” she told me. “I couldn’t eat – and I love food.”

She was prescribed SSRIs back in 2018, and has now been off them for three months. “The reason I needed them at the time was because of my uni’s handling of the sexual violence investigation,” she said. “Had they handled it better – or even took action – I wouldn’t have needed to up my dose, and I probably would’ve come off them.

“I think, for me, it was a bit more of a placebo. It very much helped me at the time, because it was the only tangible thing I could do to feel better. But having left uni, I feel really good about myself now. So, I’m not really sure they were that effective.”

‘They steered me away from suicidal thoughts’ – Ed


In his Masters year, Ed was diagnosed with a temporary version of psychosis, which his doctor said had been brought on by extreme stress and addictions to weed and coke. In order to help him feel better, the 25-year-old was given an antidepressant called Sertraline.

“I felt strange when I was on them, but they were also like a harness for me,” he said. “I felt a slight barrier emotionally, like if I was at a party, I’d find myself enjoying it slightly less than I normally would. But in a lot of situations, it was making me feel a lot better. Sertraline was a safety net.”

In 2020, Ed chose to wean himself off Sertraline for good. He believes antidepressants are vital for people who are struggling – but there needs to be better measures in place for people who want to come off the medication.

‘Antidepressants made me feel normal during uni’ – Callum

student depression

Like Ed, Callum also began taking SSRIs while studying for his Masters. He’d struggled with anxiety throughout his BA, which led him to being prescribed a beta blocker (heart-slowing medication) called Propranolol.

“I often had anxiety in social situations. But two big challenges in my life led me to feeling depressed for the first time: Coming to terms with my sexuality, and being in the middle of a difficult family situation. My SSRIs were paired with talking therapy, which helped massively.”

Callum chose to take a break from his medication once he started feeling better. “It was a silly thing to do and I wouldn’t recommend,” he said. “Because I stopped so abruptly, they made me irritable, nauseous, and suffer from splitting headaches.”

Antidepressants made Callum feel a lot more “level” throughout uni, and found dealing with difficulties a lot easier. He wants to end the stigma surrounding mental health medication.

‘I think my doctor used them as a shortcut’ – Iona


“The first SSRI was given to me in first year and I’ve been on them ever since,” graduate Iona told me. She was studying at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at the time, often finding herself feeling fatigued during performance training. “My entire undergrad life was underpinned with antidepressants.”

In her final year, she discovered she’d been misdiagnosed with depression – when, in fact, her fatigue was caused by pain disorder Fibromyalgia. “I think my doctor used it as a quick ‘out’, instead of investigating further. Doing a performance degree while on SSRIs was near enough impossible.”

‘I stopped screaming, crying and throwing up’ – Hannah

students on antidepressants

Hannah has Seasonal Depression Disorder (SAD), which causes her to suffer from low moods during the winter terms. After a previous unpleasant experience with Sertraline before uni, the Bristol student began taking Prozac instead.

“Studying during the pandemic would’ve been a lot harder had I not been on SSRIs,” she told me. “The first couple of months were horrible – but after a while, my extreme emotions felt so much smaller. I used to get a lot of academic fear and the pressure I used to put on myself was a lot. But by Christmas 2020, I just felt a lot less scared.

“I still experienced mad highs – I was only on a small dose, so I never really felt that ‘numbing’ feeling everyone talks about, but my lows were so much easier to deal with.”

‘My withdrawal symptoms are so uncomfortable’ – Suzanna


“I keep taking SSRIs because I feel obliged to, in order to keep my mood stable and avoid severe relapses,” the student told me. “My medication does have many side effects, including a dry mouth and excessive sweating. But when I try to decrease the dose myself, or if I forget to take it one day, I’ll feel significant rises in anxiety – even vertigo.”

Suzanna finds herself worried about becoming dependent on antidepressants. “I’m concerned about the immediate impact of withdrawal on my studies,” she said.

‘I’ve never looked back’ – Sophie


In the midst of her depression and binge eating disorder, Sophie was prescribed an antidepressant called Fluoxetine by her psychiatrist. “God knows I’d put a lot worse in my body than SSRIs,” she said. “At that point, it was a last resort, and I’d have tried anything to feel better.”

Medical professionals started her on 20mg, a standard dose for those who haven’t taken SSRIs before. “I’m not ashamed of taking antidepressants and I’m so thankful for them. They pulled me out of an eating disorder, self-hatred and the lowest depths I’ve ever seen.

“I’d encourage anyone in a dark place to think: ‘If I were really physically unwell, would I take medicine to help me feel better?”

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*Names changed to protect identities.