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What Does Treatment-Resistant Really Mean?

3 Tips for Dealing with Anxious ThoughtsIn his book Economic Warfare: Secrets of Wealth Creation in the Age of Welfare Politics author Ziad K. Abdelnour writes, “One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever face in life is choosing whether to walk away or try harder.”

I face that decision every day.

Twenty times a day.

Several times an hour.

That one line contains the kernel of so much of my struggle, which is why I pray the Serenity Prayer every five minutes or so:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

We have this conversation often on Group Beyond Blue, the online forum I moderate. Someone asked the other day, “How do you know the difference between being treatment-resistant and just not trying hard enough?”

The short answer is that you don’t.

As I explained in my post, “Do You Want To Be Depressed?” I question it all the time. If I only run five miles instead of six, I beat myself up and feel responsible for my death thoughts. If I splurge on a muffin for breakfast instead of making my kale smoothie, the self-flagellation can last all day.

I have only labeled myself “treatment resistant” in the last six months, when I got up to medication combination number 50 and was still counting down the years until I could die a natural death and envying folks in their 90s. Someone in the group asked, “How did you decide that no. 50 was going to be the best result that medication could give you. I mean, why not try no. 51?”

“I don’t really know,” I told him. “I guess I’m just fed up with the pharmaceutical Russian roulette.”

I saw the pharmacists at Sam’s Club more often than my friends. I fully expected them to throw me a surprise birthday party last February since my date of birth was at the tip of their tongues.

It was simple statistics. Over the course of nine years, I’ve tried 50 meds, been in therapy much of that time, and had enjoyed only two real solid years of remission.

Pretty pathetic results.

So I immersed myself in the holistic world: took mindfulness courses, significantly altered my diet, loaded up on fish oil and other supplements, and researched an endocrinologist that would actually test my T3 and T4 levels and work with me to resolve my thyroid and pituitary issues.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve just stayed on the medication combination that worked back in 2006, when I experienced a remission of symptoms for two years. Even though I was still severely depressed in January, I didn’t want to muck around anymore.

“How long does a depressive episode last without treatment?” I asked my psychiatrist last winter.

“It depends. Possible two years or more.”

“So my last depression in 2005 lasted about two years. How do I know it was combination no. 23 that brought me out of it or if I just surfaced on my own?”

“You don’t,” she said.

Back to the Serenity Prayer. Back to feeling your way blindfolded through an enchanted forest, a place of threatening danger with booby taps and evil spirits, or — if I’m feeling more optimistic — a kind of adventure that make brave people braver.

At standard doses of the most commonly used class of antidepressants (SSRIs), only 30 percent of people with severe depression achieve remission with the first medication prescribed. STAR*D, a government-sponsored, six-year study found that if a patient can hang in there for at least two different drug treatments, which often takes 12 weeks to achieve, there is a greater than 50 percent chance he or she will experience a remission of symptoms.

I interviewed a psychiatrist last week who treats many of her patients successfully with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive procedure that stimulates nerve cells in the brain with short magnetic pulses.

“What do you consider to be treatment-resistant?” I asked her.

“When someone hasn’t responded to a full trial of one antidepressant,” she said.

One?!!?” I almost spit out my water. “One antidepressant??”

National Alliance on Mental Illness, America’s largest mental health organization, defined it the same way: “Treatment-resistant depression is the clinical term for an episode of major depressive disorder that does not respond to an adequate trial (at least six weeks) of an antidepressant medication.”

That means everyone I know is treatment-resistant.

For the record, I am not anti-med. Not in the slightest. I believe that antidepressants save the lives of millions of people, some of them my dear friends and family members. At one point in my life, they worked well for me. However, I’m becoming increasingly aware that they don’t work as the sole treatment for most people.

There just is no silver bullet when it comes to treating mood disorders. And the more I discuss my own treatment-resistant depression in public forums, the more stories I hear of others not responding to medication or having a half-response like me.

The reason I need my group is that it provides proof that you can live a very full and meaningful life with the type of depression that doesn’t respond or respond fully to meds. I see hundreds of people doing just that.

It’s work. Oh man, it’s work. It takes persistence, stamina, resolve, discipline, fortitude, and humility — the ability to be a forever learner. But based on the beautiful examples I see online, being treatment-resistant doesn’t have to mean being chronically sick. It’s more like being chronically creative. And it doesn’t really matter if you walk away or try one more drug.

Join the new community, Project Beyond Blue, for persons with treatment-resistant depression.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

What Does Treatment-Resistant Really Mean?

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). What Does Treatment-Resistant Really Mean?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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