Written By Patrick D Hahn @PatrickDHahn
“I tried killing myself thirty times.”
So says Vickie, a nurse from Philadelphia who was first prescribed Paxil at the age of ten for something called “social anxiety disorder.”
For the past several years, I have borne witness to people like Vickie – wonderful, creative, caring people – who were turned into burned-out shells of their former selves after getting hooked on antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs. Most of these people began taking these drugs for the most banal reasons you could imagine – they were nervous their upcoming exams, their girlfriend had just broken up with them (that latter reason is particularly ironic, given that perhaps the single most reliable effect of so-called “antidepressants” is sexual dysfunction). In the case of Vickie, I have no doubt – none – that before she was prescribed Paxil she was a perfectly normal, healthy, delightful little girl who just liked being by herself some of the time.
The effects of Paxil on this little girl were devastating. “I really just wanted to die,” she recalls. “I cried all the time. Almost daily I would sit in my room and cry.” Her mother took her back to the psychiatrist, who doubled Vickie’s prescribed dose of Paxil.
Her condition became worse. “It was a downward spiral that I couldn’t get out of.” She felt compelled to harm herself—starving herself, binging and vomiting, pulling her own hair out, cutting herself, and obsessively picking at the scabs. She also tried to dozens of times to end her own life. “I tried slitting my wrists, overdosing on Tylenol PM, I tried hanging myself, I tried drowning myself. I even considered jumping off a bridge at one point. It wasn’t a cry for help. I just wanted to die.”
How did this poison ever get approved as a “medicine” for children?
SmithKline Beecham’s Study 329 of Paxil, published in the July 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, reported that the drug was a safe and effective treatment for major depression in adolescents. Twenty-two authors were listed, all eminently credentialed experts, giants in their field, including Martin Keller, then head of the Department of Psychiatry at Brown University.
Children of the Cure details the corporate greed and deception behind Study 329, along with the story of a small group of intrepid researchers who were relentless in their search for the truth. Their efforts culminated in the publication in the 16 September 2015 issue of BMJ of their re-analysis of the SKB data.
The re-analysis found no difference between the active drug and placebo for any of the study’s eight original outcome variables, and furthermore that one out of eight children given Paxil experienced self-harming behavior or suicidality. In plain English, the stuff was totally ineffective and drove the kids crazy to boot.
The day after the re-analysis was published, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy story on Study 329, which included comments from Dr. Keller, the notional first author of the JAACP paper. Sounding like a character in a 1930’s gangster flick, Keller told the Chronicle “Nothing was ever pinned on any of us.”
As for Vickie, she has managed, against all odds, to regain a semblance of normalcy. By the time she reached her early twenties, her condition stabilized somewhat, although she remains dependent on Paxil. She has attempted many times to taper off the drug, but every time she tries she experiences uncontrollable sweating, nausea, vomiting, crushing migraine headaches, horrible vivid nightmares, and terrifying rage.
She now works as a nurse and is raising three children, although her marriage crumbled under the strain of her condition. “I can’t really have a relationship with anybody,” she told me. “As soon as anybody finds out that I have these issues, their views on me change.” Her liver has sustained significant damage, and she believes a transplant is in her future.
“It’s a horrible medication,” she says of GlaxoSmithKline’s blockbuster drug. “Paxil turned me into a monster.”
None of this seems to have harmed Dr. Keller’s career noticeably. He had already stepped down from his position as department head several years before the re-analysis was published, and in 2015 the multinational mass media and information firm Thomson Reuters named him one the world’s most influential scientific minds. No doubt he is enjoying a well-funded retirement even as you are reading this. Whether this is sufficient consolation for the harm inflicted upon Vickie and countless others like her is a question only he can answer.
Patrick D Hahn is an Affiliate Professor of Biology at Loyola University Maryland and the author of Madness and Genetic Determinism: Is Mental Illness in Our Genes? (Palgrave Macmillan).
David Healy says we may come to see GSK’s masking of data about these withdrawal symptoms as “one of the biggest medical scandals ever.” Senior pharmaceutical regulators in the UK acknowledge they were “disgusted” and “horrified” by the deliberate withholding of information. The President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr. Mike Shooter, argues that the deception “has serious implications for the whole of psychiatry; it has serious implications for the whole of medicine.”
This Paxil Fact File, containing confidential information about one of our most widely prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, was drafted and distributed by SmithKline Beecham in 1998 for internal use only. Now GlaxoSmithKline, the drug maker acknowledges in these pages that Paxil/Seroxat causes serious, widespread side effects and withdrawal symptoms—in the February 2001 paper below, it put that number at a staggering 20% of patients. But it continued to press for an FDA license to treat social anxiety disorder (with symptoms including “fear of eating alone in a restaurant”), and advised its staff on how to spin or mask the problem of withdrawal (change the subject or put the side effects “in context”). The FDA awarded the license in March 1999, just a few months after the fact file circulated.
In the BBC Panorama segments below, which aired in Britain on October 3, 2004, David Healy says we may come to see GSK’s masking of data about these withdrawal symptoms as “one of the biggest medical scandals ever.” Senior pharmaceutical regulators in the UK acknowledge they were “disgusted” and “horrified” by the deliberate withholding of information. The President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr. Mike Shooter, argues that the deception “has serious implications for the whole of psychiatry; it has serious implications for the whole of medicine.” An investigative body in Britain met to consider whether to indict the drug maker on criminal charges.
‘how to spin or mask the problem of withdrawal (change the subject or put the side effects “in context”). The FDA awarded the license in March 1999, just a few months after the fact file circulated.’