People who quit antidepressants slowly, by gradually decreasing the dose, are much less likely to suffer a relapse, according to
Baldessarini et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
They describe a large sample (400) of patients from Sardinia, Italy, who had responded well to antidepressants, and then stopped taking them. The antidepressants had been prescribed for either depression, or panic attacks.
People who quit suddenly (over 1-7 days) were more likely to relapse, and relapsed sooner, than the ones who stopped gradually (over a period of 2 weeks or more).
This graph shows what % of the patients in each group remained well at each time point (in terms of days since their final pill.) As you can see, the two lines separate early, and then remain apart by about the same distance (20%) for the whole 12 months.
What this means is that rapid discontinuation didn't just accelerate relapses that were "going to happen anyway". It actually caused more relapses - about 1 in 5 "extra" people. These "extra" relapses all happened in the first 3 months, because after that, the slope of the lines is identical.
On the other hand, they rarely happened immediately - it's not as if people relapsed within days of their last pill. The pattern was broadly similar for older antidepressants (tricyclics) and newer ones (SSRIs).
The authors note that these data throw up important questions about "relapse prevention" trials comparing people who stay on antidepressants vs. those who are switched - abruptly - to placebo. People who stay on the drug usually do better, but is this because the drug works, or because the people on placebo were withdrawn too fast?
This was an observational study, not an experiment. There was no randomization. People quit antidepressants for various "personal or clinical reasons"; 80% of the time it was their own decision, and only 20% of the time was it due to their doctor's advice.
So it's possible that there was some underlying difference between the two groups, that could explain the differences. Regression analysis revealed that the results weren't due to differences in dose, duration of treatment, diagnosis, age etc., but you can't measure every possible confound.
Only randomized controlled trials could provide a final answer, but there's little chance of anyone doing one. Drug companies are unlikely to fund a study about how to stop using their products. So we have only observational data to go on. These data fit in with previous studies showing that there's a similar story when it comes to quitting lithium and antipsychotics. Gradual is better.
But that's common sense. Tapering medications slowly is a good idea in general, because it gives your system more time to adapt. Of course, sometimes there are overriding medical reasons to quit quickly, but apart from in such cases, I'd always want to come off anything as gradually as possible.
Baldessarini RJ, Tondo L, Ghiani C, & Lepri B (2010). Illness risk following rapid versus gradual discontinuation of antidepressants. The American journal of psychiatry, 167 (8), 934-41 PMID: 20478876