Let me first say that I am NOT a doctor or pharmacist, but the information that I present here is from personal experience and from LOTS of reading and research.
Anti-depressants are a class of drugs that work basically on any or all of three chemicals in the brain - Seratonin, Norepinepherine, and/or Dopamine. The way that they work is not exactly known - there are as many theories out there as there are medications. But they DO know that these three chemicals are responsible for our general sense of well-being and our ability to cope with the day-to-day stresses of life.
It is very important (IMHO) that you have a psychiatrist be the one who prescribes the medications. Yes, regular MDs are able to do this, but the psychiatrists are the ones who specialize in this area and are masters at getting the right medication and/or combination of medications. I have found, over the years, that it is almost an art. Where Prozac works for one person, it may not work at all or have negative effects for someone else. AND, there is a whole new field of expertise where doctors have started working with combinations of anti-depressants to get the benefits of each compound.
Personally, I am on Cymbalta which is a fairly new one from Eli Lilly. The doctor wanted to try this one because it works on Seratonin and Norepinepherine AND has been shown to work with neuorpathic pain in some patients.
So, you will find that finding the right anti-depressant will be a trial-and-error process. A prudent doctor will start you on the lowest dose. If you respond well, then there is no need to raise the dosage. Sometimes they may raise the dose to get the optimum response. If it doesn't work in a few weeks, they may suggest trying another one. Don't get discouraged.... once the right one is hit, you will notice after several weeks that the weight of depression is slowly starting to lift. It isn't a "high" - you simply find that you start to feel like your "old self" - your ability to cope with the small things that life throws you has returned - the emotional ups and downs tend to smoothe out from a roller-coaster to a gentle ride.
There are some who are afraid of anti-depressants. I look at it this way - if you were a diabetic, you would readily take insulin which is a substance that your body needs to function properly, right? Well, the same goes with depression.... our bodies are not producing the chemicals necessary for a decent quality of life - chemicals that are normally produced in the brain.
Now - to the anti-anxiety drugs - these are a whole different group of compounds. They are the tranquilizers - most are in the same family as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, etc (Benzodiazipines). These drugs are useful on a SHORT-TERM basis - they have the potential for addiction and abuse. Most times, they are useful for people who have severe panic attacks. The problem is that the short-acting ones like Xanax and Ativan can cause physical dependence in a very brief period of time.
AFter taking them for a long time and consistently causes the body to be dependent on them... stopping abruptly can cause very unpleasant withdrawl symptoms and/or seizures.
But, if you are experiencing panic attacks, they can be very useful when properly administered.
I guess in the end, I can't stress enough how important it is to make sure you have a doctor prescribing these medications who has a lot of knowledge and experience with this genre of drugs. They can be life-savers and, when prescribed properly, restore a quality of life that we all deserve. They don't change the problems that we face every day, nor can they erase the past, but what they can do is to improve our ability to cope with everything and make rational decisions to improve ourselves.
I hope this info has been helpful - again I repeat that I'm not a doctor, but have done a lot of personal research so that I could make informed decisions with my own life.
EDIT: Also, I wanted to comment on your reaction to Roadrunner's posting. I think that you may have misunderstood where he was coming from. If you notice, his postings come from Germany. In Europe (more so than the USA), it is a HUGE stigma to have any emotional problems whatever their nature. I have a friend in England who was terrified to see a psychiatrist for depression because she said that employers and financial institutions have access to these records - psychiatric treatment can have negative repercussions such as being denied a mortgage loan.
In the USA, things are improving, but there is still a lot of prejudice against any mental illness. People are more inclined to be understanding of someone who is suffering from cancer because it is something "physical". There are still people, unfortunately, who look on mental illness as a "weakness". For example, not more than 20 years ago, alcoholics were viewed as weak people who had no self-control. Medical science has proven otherwise - that it is a physical illness.
So, I guess I'm saying that Roadrunner was not referring to gender or sexual stereotypes.... I think that his statement was more general. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in regards to attitudes towards depression and other mental/emotional issues. I'll leave you with one last example which may bring to light what I'm trying to say:
I have a dear friend of 25 years - a colleague who has known me very well. She is a good friend and a compassionate human being. At one time, she saw that I was deeply troubled - it was when the first memories of abuse came flooding back. I confided in her as to what was happening. I could tell that she was trying desperately to understand, but came out with the statement, "But that was 30 years ago - maybe you should try to forget." She just didn't get it...... and this was someone who would never hurt me. But somehow, I got the feeling that she looked on me as having a "weakness" because I couldn't just "get over it".
There are no unresolved issues - they just didn't resolve themselves the way we would have liked. "Grinder and Bandler - Neuro-Linguistic Programming"