Dateline: Ontario, Canada. Eighteen-year-old Brennan McCartney visited his doctor for a chest cold and, despite no history of mental health issues or diagnosis of depression, received a prescription for the antidepressant Cipralex. Four days later, on November 8, 2010, he hanged himself.
Dateline: Laytonsville, Maryland. A psychiatrist prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft to 12-year-old Candace Downing, who suffered anxiety related to schoolwork but was otherwise a bright child with a loving family, a wide circle of friends, and no history of depression. On January 10, 2004, her mother found her dead, hanging from her bed valance.
Dateline: Indianapolis, Indiana. To help pay her college tuition, 19-year-old Traci Johnson volunteered for a clinical trial of a new antidepressant called Cymbalta. On February 7, 2004, she hanged herself at the Eli Lilly laboratory where the experiment was held. She was one of five participants who took their lives during clinical trials of the drug prior to its debut, though all had been pre-screened to confirm they did not have mental problems.
Thousands of similar stories link suicide, self-harm, and violent behavior to psychotherapeutics, but these medicines, often referred to as blockbuster drugs because they top $1 billion in annual sales, are among the most popular in medical history. The antipsychotic Abilify is now the nation’s top-selling drug. Research firm IMS Health reports sales totaled nearly $6.5 billion in 2013. The medicine involved in the clinical trial suicides recounted above, Cymbalta, is the fourth-most-prescribed drug in the United States and the fifth top seller at $5.2 billion. Vyvanse, an amphetamine used to treat childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), holds the eighth position on the list of most prescribed meds. Ninth is Lyrica, an anticonvulsant often used to treat social anxiety disorder. Number 36 is antipsychotic Seroquel, prescribed for a wide range of conditions from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia. Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medication class in the United States.
These cash cows can instigate mental conditions, such as suicidal ideation (preoccupation with suicide) and aggression. According to the Physician’s Desk Reference, an authoritative guide to prescription drug information, they can also cause serious physical side effects, especially involving the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Psychotropics, as they are commonly called, include medicines to treat depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and various psychoses, as well as stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Antidepressants are particularly associated with high suicide risk, though most psychotropics carry suicide precautions, and all warn users to watch for increased depression and/or aggression. ADHD drugs are strongly linked with substance abuse, stunted growth, and even sudden death. Research shows long-term effects of psychotherapeutic medications pose other dangers.
Yet in a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases claim the most lives, and Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes run rampant, there is a striking disconnect in the fact that four of the top 10 most-prescribed drugs are psychotropics. Why the soaring popularity of such dangerous substances?
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