When Pills Are the Problem

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I guess your thread (that just came to my attention) has been going a long time. Perhaps my response is still of interest. I read Hanna Rosin’s article on the Silicon Valley Suicides with great interest. Until very recently, I lived just a few miles north of Palo Alto. My beloved daughter, a recent Stanford graduate, took her own life in 2002 as a result of an adverse reaction to an SSRI antidepressant.

It was totally unexpected and out of character despite a brief period of mental distress due to insomnia and career upheaval. At the time she died, she was under the care of academic psychiatrists, whom I have now come to believe were a large part of the problem in her death rather than any solution. I know that in at least one of the cases Rosin referred to in her article, the young woman who jumped off an overpass, the victim was also under the care of revered professionals.

It’s my premise that not only the culture of Silicon Valley, but also, almost more importantly, the nature of the remedies that are being proposed in the name of mental health counseling, are to blame in these deaths.

Because I recognized immediately that my daughter’s death was the result of agitated and highly disturbed behavior brought on by medication adjustments in the last days of her life, I became a student of psychopharmacological safety and effectiveness. What I learned was highly disturbing. The FDA is far from a protector; it’s largely the puppet of pharmaceutical industry interests. Psychiatry itself is in the pocket of industry and promotes a highly flawed biomedical model for mental illness that divorces itself almost completely from the trauma and dysfunction that drive most symptoms of mental distress.

I co-founded the website SSRIStories.org, now administered by Julie Wood, who wrote an excellent series of articles (available on RxISK.org) about the significance of what is revealed in that database. I also testified at FDA hearings in 2004 and 2006 and my testimony, along with those of several other victims and survivors, led to a black box warning on antidepressants, which is all too often dismissed a decade later.  

While I realize it would be reductionist to say that the suicides going on in Palo Alto are solely the result of adverse reactions to medication—not simply antidepressants, but also stimulants and other treatments that may have been started in childhood—this is still an issue that should be seriously considered. It is no secret that stimulants are now being promoted as a cognitive performance enhancer and Silicon Valley is a prime market for these drugs. [Related discussion in Notes here and here.] But how many people also know that they are a segue to other psychotropic drugs, since stimulants often lead to depression and/or mania? How many children are being labeled “bipolar” or “clinically depressed” because of their response to treatments they are receiving rather than any underlying condition?

As Ms. Rosin so poignantly (though implicitly) points out, these children are not suffering from “brain disease,” but rather some glaring societal and cultural pressures that are inappropriate and damaging. And these children and their parents are not being adequately alerted to the potential for harm of psychiatric drugs. Mental health professionals, least of all, understand that these drugs come with enormous risks of, yes, suicide and self harm, but also chronic dysthymia, sexual dysfunction, sleep disorders etc. etc.

The medications are not helping to alleviate the other broader pressures that exist in the environment (how could pills really do that?!); they are exacerbating those pressures, which is why, in my opinion, the number of suicides continues to grow.

How many of the victims in Silicon Valley were already being treated for mental disorders and how many had labels that are debilitating to live with when it’s the environment that should have the label, not the students? How many were taking medication, which is disabling and harmful over the long term, reducing rather than enhancing coping skills, unless used in a very cautious and short term way?

Mental health counseling, as it is practiced today, is, in so many cases, actually aggravating the problems rather than mitigating them. This is an issue very much worth investigating further for the sake of our next generation.

Thanks to our reader for sharing her personal and impassioned story. Anyone in the psychiatric community or pharmaceutical industry want to provide a different view of medications used to treat depression and other mood disorders? Drop us an email.

(Image of a black box warning via SterlingMedicalAdvise.com)