TRACI JOHNSON: The volunteer drug-trial participant had no history of physical or mental difficulty
PETER BREGGIN: 'People become victims of the Spellbinding Effect, as I call it, leaving them at the mercy of these drugs because they don't realise they're being harmed; and they can even get a false impression that they're doing better than ever before, when in fact they have an unrealistic euphoria'
Sunday October 15th 2006
TRACI Johnson wanted with all her heart to go back to college. She was a tall 19-year-old brunette with stunning good looks, and a spirited, determined young woman. She was healthy, with no history of physical or emotional difficulties, such as depression. Those closest to her described her as upbeat, an active volunteer and someone who loved life.
She had enrolled as a voluntary participant in a trial to test a new drug for "stress urinary incontinence" for which she was paid US$750 a day - the money she intended to put towards her college fees. She commenced taking the drug in January 2004. Four weeks later, Traci Johnson hanged herself using a scarf in the shower room.
By local state laws, she was not old enough to legally drink a beer; she could not even rent a car. Yet she was deemed mature enough to decide to take an experimental drug on a daily basis.
The drug she was testing is now a widely prescribed antidepressant, Cymbalta.
I am talking to the world-renowned psychiatrist Peter Breggin, who is visiting Ireland this week.
"The real child abusers are my colleagues in psychiatry who have led the way," were his exact words. Then he slowly repeats it.
"They are child abusers. The greatest child abuse of our time is the mass drugging of our children."
Having reflected on the words he chooses to describe doctors who prescribe harmful psychiatric drugs to young children and teenagers in order to "cure" depression or Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD), I find he makes sense.
His time in court over many years has honed his ability for instant dramatic effect. He has acted as a witness in defence of individuals who took cases against the giant drug companies they claimed ruined their lives and almost stole their sanity and their will to live.
Many of them were awarded large fortunes in what became highly publicised landmark cases in the States. But, more important than money, they got back their dignity and their identity.
"I've had dozens of cases of anti-depressant-induced violence, suicide, psychosis, mania. In one extreme case, a man knocked down a policeman with his car in order to grab the policeman's gun to shoot himself; in another case, a man drove his car into a barrier in an attempt to kill his wife, whom he thought had an alien lurking inside her; in both cases these were clearly caused by the drugs.
"People become victims of the 'Spellbinding Effect', as I call it, leaving them at the mercy of these drugs because they don't realise they're being harmed; and they can even get a false impression that they're doing better than ever before, when in fact they?have an unrealistic euphoria."
Breggin walks his own talk. It would be difficult to contradict the statements that are flying like a professional boxer's jabs and hooks, because everything he says is based on almost 50 years of well-practised research. But is depression not all about common sense?
"The problem is that the common sense approach, which is also the most profound approach to depression, leaves biological psychiatry high and dry, because [psychiatry] treats people as if they're broken mechanical devices that can be tinkered with by a person who knows much less about the brain than the average mechanic knows about your car.
"They take the most complex subtle human problems - how to find meaningful work, how to find love, how to live in a world full of violence and disappointments, how to overcome childhood experiences of abuse and oppression - all of these subtle difficult problems that are human problems can be resolved through a whole range of human alternatives from counselling to philosophy and religion, and they treat them in the most ignorant way as mechanical issues."
Pharmaceutical companies and many of his erstwhile colleagues have not disguised their contempt for him since the day he stepped out from the elite ranks of his closely guarded profession.
He says that new pharmaceuticals are branded as wonder drugs with certain beneficial properties. When rivals catch up and start making the same claims for their brands, the PR changes and even greater claims are made.
"So it's all games with words, played to influence the public," Breggin claims.
Breggin, who turned 70 recently, has spent much of his professional life criticising what his own profession stands for, namely the trigger-happy tendency on the part of many doctors and psychiatrists to prescribe harmful, addictive drugs for depression - a condition that is far more receptive to a loving, expressive, empathic relationship.
"We know now, and it's shown in scientific research that these drugs do cause addiction, and they predispose youngsters when they get into their 20s to use cocaine because their brains have become conditioned by [named brand drugs] which are in the same class of stimulant as cocaine.
"These drugs, for the first few weeks, usually have a flattening effect on the child's behaviour. They replace spontaneous behaviour with compulsive behaviour. It is the suppression of normal brain function."
He is the author of 20 bestselling books; one of them, Toxic Psychiatry (1991), made for tough reading. It was the first time we were told head-on about the dangers of some anti-depressants possibly leading to suicide. It took until 2004 for some manufacturers to accept this and include such a warning on the drug's accompanying instructions leaflet.
He says that some drug companies have "led the way in suppressing critics and research. They control the drug market - they've led the way in that regard. I'm not sure what the answer's going to be, because the battle is so lopsided, but then David did bring down Goliath".
So what's all this scientific stuff about chemical imbalances in the brain? I ask.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that depression is caused by a biochemical imbalance. There is none!" He says it is an idea promoted by certain drug companies.
"The only biochemical imbalances that we know of in the brains of people labelled 'mental patients' are the ones caused by psychiatric drugs and electric shock."
Some anti-depressants, he says, have been dubbed "the magic pills". In the States it was hip and trendy to be "popping" these pills and attending "a shrink".
One in five Irish adults takes Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressants (CSO statistics, 2006). That's over half a million people. Are you surprised by such a high figure? I ask.
He sighs. "I was hoping that the Irish had more sense than the Americans - but in this regard it sounds a lot like America. It's a great misfortune, because there's actually very little valid scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these drugs. The way they have gotten approval in the United States is by ignoring all the ways they are no better than a sugar pill, while focusing on the small number of very limited studies that show they are only little better than a sugar pill!
"On the other hand, they cause a lot of harm. They call this the Risk Benefit Ratio. The risk of taking these drugs is rather large; all kinds of physical and psychiatric problems result from taking the drugs, while the benefit is usually small "
Drug companies in the US have paid out millions insettlements.
Breggin was one of the medical experts who evaluated cases on behalf of the claimants, including cases in which individuals died of acute diabetic coma or pancreatitis while being treated with a drug. There have also been lawsuits from people who claimed they suffered severe mental and behavioral abnormalities, including mania, suicidal tendencies, violence, and the onset of a condition called Tardive Dyskinesia (permanent drug-induced abnormal physical behaviour, as a result of taking certain prescribed drugs [SSRIs], characterised by involuntary jerky movements of the face, tongue, jaws, trunk, and limbs).
The drug industry says there is a legitimate concern that the fear surrounding their drugs could mean some patients are not prescribed them. They say it is important that necessary anti-depressant treatments are available to all patients who need them, including children and adolescents, and they say: "Information about the safe use of these products is made publicly available."
Is it really? I don't think so. Seven months prior to the international launch of the drug she was testing, the news of Traci Johnson's suicide started to leak out into small local newspapers around the States. Eventually, it made national headlines. Four others, each diagnosed with depression, also died by suicide while participating in the same trials.
According to an investigation by the London Independent newspaper, all five deaths were "hidden" by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA gave a legal rationale for its silence: "Some clinical trial data are considered 'trade secrets', or commercially protected information, and thus are exempted from release under the Freedom of Information Act."
The FDA has directed the manufacturers of all anti-depressant medications to add a "black box warning" that describes the increased risk of suicidal ideas and fixations in children and adolescents given anti-depressant medications.
Traci Johnson wasn't suffering from depression. She was part of a clinical test into a drug for stress urinary incontinence. Unknown to her, this drug was also being tested as an anti-depressant. I doubt she might have partaken in such tests if she'd known that nine months later the tablets she'd swallowed would carry a "black box" suicide warning.
Peter Breggin, MD, will speak at a day-long conference entitled 'Healing Depression without Drugs or Electric Shocks', next Saturday, October 21, at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin. Contact Ticketmaster.ie for details or see www.wellbeingfoundation.com
the wellbeing foundation
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