Male GPs are far more likely to prescribe antidepressants than female doctors, a mental health charity says.
Many patients said exercise helped the most
A survey of 200 GPs by the Mental Health Foundation found 61% of male GPs would first offer pills to people with mild or moderate depression.
Only 37% of female GPs questioned said they would suggest medication first, with more favouring counselling.
A Royal College of GPs spokesman said long waits for counselling could mean medication was the best option.
The survey of male and female GPs, carried out by NOP for the Mental Health Foundation, also found 43% of male GPs think antidepressants are effective, compared to 17% of their female colleagues.
However, while women doctors are more likely to believe counselling is the most effective treatment for depression, there is little difference in the proportion of male and female GPs who actually refer patients for so-called "talking therapy" - 39% of female doctors and 26% of men.
'Attitudes must change'
The Mental Health Foundation says this disparity in women doctors' beliefs and actions may be due to the lack of availability of counsellors to see patients.
The charity also questioned 180 people with experience of depression about their strategies for coping.
Two-thirds of those questioned had tried exercise as a strategy, and 81% said it was effective.
But 60% said their GPs had offered them antidepressants, 42% counselling.
Only 2% per cent were offered exercise on prescription.
Half of those who had taken antidepressants reported "troubling" side effects.
Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: "GPs' knowledge and beliefs, coupled with a chronic shortage of any choice of treatments in many areas, means that people presenting with mental health problems face an obstacle course in finding a treatment that will work for them.
"We need to change the attitudes and prescribing behaviours of GPs, and educate them about the effectiveness of exercise referral and other non-medical treatments so that patients are given more choice."
Dr Jim Kennedy, chair of the Royal College of GPs prescribing committee, said: "Women tend to choose female GPs and men tend to choose to see men.
"So there may be an issue about the client group. Men may be less inclined to go for counselling."
But he added: "There is a huge problem around waiting times of up to 12 months or more for counselling.
"If you have a situation like that, there is no point in referring someone with acute depression for counselling if you know they are going to have to wait that long."