Originally published in the Guardian Weekend, 30 October, 1999.
PROZAC: THEY TOLD US IT WAS SAFE
It was too good to be true. Prozac, taken by 38-million people
is not as harmless as we've been led to believe. Disturbing evidence has
emerged, showing that Prozac can push some patients into so agitated a
state of mind that they are a danger not only to themselves, but to
By Sarah Boseley
Prozac is the late 20th century's miracle drug - a medicine for a world
that wants simple answers to life's complexities. Happiness is pill
Unsurprising, then, that Prozac has been received across the globe with
quasi- religious fervour. More than 38-million people have taken it.
And, unlike the old prescription tranquillisers such as Valium and
Librium, Prozac is said to be safe. It is almost impossible to kill
yourself with an overdose. That's been its biggest-selling pitch -
Prozac is simple, legal and safe. GPs are handing it out to teenagers,
even young children.
But since its launch in January 1988 in the United States when Prozac
was let loose on whole populations rather than on selected patients in
clinical trials, there has been a spate of disturbing accounts of
violence and suicide committed by people prescribed the drug by their
Some 200 cases have come to court in the US. Victims and families of
killers have sued the multinational Eli Lilly, manufacturers of the
world's most commercially successful drug. Until recently, not one case
reached a verdict. Either it was dropped or Lilly settled out of court,
sometimes for millions of dollars. Lilly's defence has always been the
same: blame the disease, not the drug. Depressed people go on Prozac.
Depressed people are often suicidal. Keep taking the tablets.
The first Prozac case to come to litigation concerned Joseph Wesbecker,
a Louisville printer, who took several automatic weapons to work one
day, and killed eight and injured 16 of his colleagues before turning
the gun on himself.
But earlier this year, for the first time, Lilly came up against a
family in the US who would not settle. The Forsyths wanted a hearing.
Internal documents belonging to Lilly were produced in court. And
although Lilly won the case - the jury decided it could not hold it
responsible for Bill Forsyth Snr's death - it may have lost the
argument, for those documents showed that Lilly knew as long as 20
years ago that Prozac can produce in some people a strange, agitated
state of mind that can trigger in them an unstoppable urge to commit
suicide or murder.
Dr David Healy, director of the north Wales Department of Psychological
Medicine and author of The Antidepressant Era, the only comprehensive
history of such drugs, believes that Lilly is guilty of a failure to
warn doctors and public of the terrible potential consequences for some
people of taking Prozac.
"Based on published data and Lilly's internal documents, the only
reasonable estimate for the number of people who have worldwide,
because of Prozac, tried to kill themselves since it was introduced
would be a quarter of a million - about 25 000 will have actually
succeeded," says Healy.
Terrifying things happen to a number of people within the first few
weeks of taking the drug, says Healy. They become agitated, restless
and anxious. Out of the blue, and completely out of character, they may
try to kill themselves in extremely violent ways, and they may try to
take others with them.
What happened to Bill Forsyth Snr is typical of some people's
catastrophic reaction to the drug, which hits the susceptible within
days of starting on it. Forsyth was a man of certainties. He was a
go-getter, the sort of run-of-the- mill success story that America
rejoices in. For 40 years, he'd been in the car business in California,
land of the freeway, owning a car-rental firm based at Los Angeles
airport. When the airport needed to expand in 1986, it bought him out
for big bucks. So he retired to Hawaii, where their son, Bill Jnr, had
made his home with his wife and children.
But life soon began to jar for Bill Snr. He and June, his wife of 37
years, were falling out. They had built themselves a luxurious house on
Maui, but were under each other's feet, unused to being constantly
together. Bill Snr walked away a couple of times, flying back to LA for
Then he and June went to a marriage counsellor. They successfully
sorted out their relationship. But in December 1992 Bill Snr began to
have panic attacks. His doctor prescribed medication. Bill Snr did not
like the idea of taking mind- altering drugs, but he was the sort of
man who wanted to do what the doctor told him, so he took his
medicine. But it didn't work.
Let's try something else, said the doctor. A new drug, Prozac.
Obediently, Bill Snr took his pills. The very next day he experienced
the Prozac miracle. He felt wonderful. The clouds had cleared. Bill Snr
called his doctor to tell him he felt 200% better.
The next day, the doctor got another call. It was from Bill Jnr to tell
him that a horrible change had come over his father. Bill Snr himself
had demanded to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He spent a week
in the Castle Medical Centre, on the neighbouring island of Oahu, where
doctors continued to give him Prozac.
On March 3 1993, after 11 days on Prozac, Bill Snr went home at his own
request. Bill Snr and June planned to go out whale- watching with Bill
Jnr the next day. When they didn't turn up as arranged, he went to the
house. He found a scene of carnage: during the night or early in the
morning, his father had stabbed his mother 15 times and had then placed
a serrated kitchen knife on a stool and impaled himself on it.
Bill Jnr and his sister, Susan, were devastated and disbelieving -
never in a thousand years would they have guessed that their father
might one day murder their mother and then kill himself in so violent a
fashion. As far as they were concerned, Prozac was responsible.
In March this year, their suit against Eli Lilly finally came to trial
in Honolulu. In the run-up to the trial, the Forsyth family's lawyers
contacted Healy. It was not the first time he had been asked to look at
a case against Lilly that alleged Prozac had caused balanced
individuals with minor depression to become suicidal killers. But this
case was, to Healy, clearer than any of the previous ones. Bill Snr had
no history of mental illness. He had never shown suicidal leanings.
What had happened on the last night of his life was totally unexpected
and out of character. Healy became convinced that Prozac had sent
Forsyth into a homicidal, suicidal frenzy. He agreed to become an
expert witness for the family against Eli Lilly.
What Healy has learned during the litigation has surprised and worried
He believes that Prozac is a useful antidepressant. But there is now a
mound of evidence that, in a minority of cases, it induces a strange
and disturbing state of mind that can lead to violence and suicide.
This state of mind is a recognised psychiatric phenomenon, called
akathisia. Akathisia was described by the Forsyths' attorney, Andy
Vickery, as a sort of jitteriness or feeling "wired", like the effects
of drinking too much strong black coffee. But on Prozac, the experience
can be far more severe, sometimes leading to an inability to keep still
and to restless pacing up and down.
Akathisia caused by antipsychotic drugs has long been recognised as
leading to suicidal and homicidal-suicidal feelings. But antipsychotics
such as chlorpromazine, while sometimes inducing suicidal feelings,
take away the will to do anything about it. Never - before Prozac - had
it been associated with antidepressants, which apply no such brakes on
action. So doctors would not expect to see it. Lilly had issued no
warnings that it could occur, even though akathisia had been spotted in
some patients during the clinical trials before Prozac was given its
Lilly's own internal documents show it was identified as early as
1978. On August 2 of that year, when only three trials were under way,
minutes of a meeting of the Fluoxetine (Prozac) project team run thus:
"There have been a fairly large number of reports of adverse reactions
Another depressed patient developed psychosis ... Akathisia and
restlessness were reported in some patients." A similar meeting 10 days
earlier had noted that "some patients have converted from severe
depression to agitation within a few days; in one case the agitation
was marked and the patient had to be taken off [the] drug".
The minutes further state that "in future studies the use of
benzodiazepines to control the agitation will be permitted". So, from
that point on, Lilly's trial subjects would be put on tranquillisers to
get them over the akathisia. Yet once Prozac was on the market, there
was no warning to GPs that such action may be necessary.
Those who developed akathisia or who had any suicidal tendencies were
excluded from the trial data on the basis that they would otherwise
obscure the results of the drug's success in treating depression. Yet
the German licensing authority, the Bundes Gesundheit Amt (BGA), on
scrutinising the results, expressed concerns about the drug's safety.
On May 25 1984, according to Lilly's internal documents, a letter from
the BGA stated:
"During the treatment with the preparation [Prozac], 16 suicide
attempts were made, two of these with success. As patients with a risk
of suicide were excluded from the studies, it is probable that this
high proportion can be attributed to an action of the preparation
In January 1985, the Germans told Lilly that they would not license the
drug. Lilly continued trying to persuade the BGA to grant a licence,
but focused most of their efforts on the US. By August 1989, it was
clear to Lilly that the BGA would demand that Prozac carry a warning to
GPs to the effect that they should be aware of the risk of suicide
unless they gave patients sedation along with their Prozac. Such a
warning finally went on the German package insert in 1992. It goes on:
"For his/her own safety, the patient must be sufficiently observed,
until the antidepressive effect of Fluctin [Prozac] sets in. Taking an
additional sedative may be necessary."
During the licensing process in the US, however, Lilly did not tell the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the German concerns. Indeed, the
firm's papers disclose a long and successful battle against the idea
that Prozac could induce violence or suicide. They suggest that Lilly
had an explicit strategy to blame the disease and not the drug, and
that some of Lilly's own scientists had reservations about this.
One of them, John Heiligenstein, wrote in an internal memo on September
14 1990: "We feel caution should be exercised in a statement that
'suicidality and hostile acts in patients taking Prozac reflect the
patient's disorder and not a causal relationship to Prozac'.
Post-marketing reports [reports from GPs of suicides and violence in
patients on the drug] are increasingly fuzzy and we have assigned,
'Yes, reasonably related', on several reports."
This memo was written two years after Prozac was granted a licence in
the US, and just months after the most dangerous challenge to Lilly's
position so far. Earlier in 1990, Martin Teicher, Jonathan Cole and
Carol Glod, who were linked to Harvard University, published a study of
six patients on Prozac. They had a history of depression, but all,
while on the drug, became violently suicidal in a way that surprised
themselves and their doctors. The report noted that suicidal thoughts
occurred within days or weeks of going on Prozac, or of having the
dosage increased beyond a certain level, and that such thoughts
disappeared when the patient stopped taking the drug. But Lilly
insisted that Prozac did not cause akathisia. For good measure, the
company asserted that the link between akathisia and suicide is
Lilly's internal documents of the time show that it was going through a
difficult period. Some of the public criticism of its blockbuster drug
was coming from the UK. "Anything that happens in the UK can threaten
this drug [Prozac] in the US and worldwide," ran an internal memo from
Leigh Thompson, one of Lilly's chief scientists. "We are now expending
enormous efforts fending off attacks because of 1) relationship to
murder and 2) inducing suicidal ideation [suicidal behaviour]."
Another memo from Thompson ran: "I am concerned about reports I get re
UK attitude toward Prozac safety. Leber [Dr Paul Leber of the FDA]
suggested a few minutes ago we use CSM [the British Committee on Safety
of Medicines] database to compare Prozac aggression and suicidal
ideation with other antidepressants in the UK. Although he is a fan of
Prozac and believes a lot of this is garbage, he is clearly a political
creature and will have to respond to pressures. I hope Patrick
[probably a Lilly employee] realises that Lilly can go down the tubes
if we lose Prozac, and just one event in the UK can cost us that."
This was how high the stakes had become. Without Prozac, Lilly could
"go down the tubes". A memo from the German office to Lilly's US
headquarters that November indicates that Lilly was keen to root out
the word "suicide"
>From its database of side effects experienced by patients on the drug:
Claude Bouchy and Hans Weber in Germany were alarmed by suggestions
from their US superiors that, when GPs reported a suicide attempt on
Prozac to them, they should record it as "overdose" (even though it is
almost impossible to kill yourself by overdosing on Prozac), and that a
GP's report of "suicidal ideation" should be recorded as "depression".
"Hans has medical problems with these directions and I have great
concerns about it," runs a memo from Bouchy to Thompson. "I don't think
I could explain to the BGA, to a judge, to a reporter or even to my
family why we would do this, especially on the sensitive issue of
Something had to be done. Lilly finally agreed to undertake the study
suggested by the FDA, and look at the suicide rate among UK patients on
Prozac, but it didn't. Instead, the company put together a "meta-
>From the clinical trials before the drug had been licensed
(meta-analysis pools all the data from all available trials, and looks
for trends from that very large sample of patients). The object was to
find out whether more people on Prozac had become suicidal than those
given a placebo or other treatment without knowing it. Lilly's own
scientists, led by Charles Beasley, did the work.
Beasley's study was rejected by the New England Journal of Medicine,
but the British Medical Journal accepted and published it in 1991. It
had "the appearance of scientific rigour", says Healy, but it is clear,
he says, in the light of the documents that emerged in the Forsyth
case, that the so-called meta- analysis had included only 3 065
patients out of about 27 000 involved in the trials and that it had
also included data that the FDA had rejected during licensing. Among
those excluded from Lilly's study were the 5% of patients who had shown
akathisia-like symptoms during the clinical trials and had dropped out,
and also the 13 or 15 suicides. "Given the populations being studied
and the numbers involved, there should have been no suicides," says
Nor was there any mention of the fact that a considerable number of
patients had been put on benzodiazepines to suppress the very problem
that Lilly was claiming did not occur. Nor did the study mention any
suicides since the licensing of the drug, which by that time numbered
some 198 in the US and 94 elsewhere.
On the basis of this material, and on Lilly's constant reiteration that
depression and not the drug causes suicide, the FDA's
psychopharmacological drugs advisory committee decided in September
1991 that there was "no credible evidence of a causal link between the
use of antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, and suicidality or
It is this FDA conclusion from nine years ago that Lilly now cites
every time questions are raised about suicides, homicides and its
best-selling drug - but none of those on the FDA panel would have been
aware of the limitations of the Beasley study, because they would not
have seen Lilly's internal documents.
The company's representative in Indianapolis told me : "That is more
important than an attorney's selective manipulation of data. You have
to take a look at the patient population. In people with depression
there is probably a 15% suicide rate. There is no evidence that Prozac
Lilly adds to this the evidence from three small studies that, Healy
argues, are flawed. One, for instance, was a study of 654 anxious - not
depressed - patients, of whom only 187 were on Prozac. According to
Lilly's argument, none of these patients should have committed suicide,
because they were not depressed - and yet one of those on Prozac did.
The agitated state of mind that Prozac brings on in a minority of
people who take it (perhaps one in four) might not have mattered if it
had been aimed only at the seriously clinically depressed in hospital,
where they would be regularly observed and sedated if they showed signs
of acute anxiety. But Prozac is not that sort of drug. It has always
been aimed at the general population, those with a less significant
depression or anxiety which did not wreck their lives but simply made
them more difficult. These people get Prozac from their GP, who is not
around to see what effect it has on their behaviour. Nor is the GP
warned that there may be a problem.
In 1995, new evidence of Prozac's dangers emerged from just the type of
study that the FDA had requested years earlier, although it was not
carried out for that specific purpose. A Boston-based scientist,
Herschel Jick, carried out a study of suicides in the UK among people
who had been prescribed antidepressants by their GP. Jick compared the
suicide rates on 10 different antidepressants, and found that far more
killed themselves on Prozac than on other drugs.
Jick's study found that there were 187 suicides per 100 000 depressed
patients per year on Prozac. Lilly argues, however, that suicide rates
among people with depression run at about 600 per 100 000. But those
figures, says Healy, apply only to hospital patients with acute
depression. Among the depressed population in the community, the
published studies show the suicide rate is only about 30 per 100 000.
So, on those figures, 157 people prescribed Prozac by their GP out of
every 100 000 will kill themselves because of it. In fact, says Healy,
the likelihood of someone committing suicide on Prozac prescribed by
their GP during their first month of treatment is 10 times greater than
if they were untreated, which is a level of risk approaching that of
smokers' likelihood of developing lung cancer.
Healy does not want to see Prozac withdrawn, however. He wants,
instead, to see a clear warning on the label, so that GPs will know
they must keep a close watch on their patients for the first few weeks
of treatment, and to give patients a sedative if they appear agitated.
Left to themselves, patients suffering from akathisia will usually give
up on the drug - they just feel too bad to continue - but Lilly's guide
to the treatment, and the standard GP advice, is to carry on taking the
medicine. Once a patient is over the bad patch, it is argued, they will
feel terrific. They may well feel terrific - or they may be dead.
The Forsyths are going to appeal their case. Vickery, Warner and
Company, of Houston, Texas, the law firm that represented the family,
cannot believe that they lost. "I was shocked and disappointed for
months," says Andy Vickery. "In the final argument, I told the jury
that their verdict could save lives. I'm now representing families of
people who killed themselves after that verdict."
The arguments Vickery made in Honolulu may now be used in the UK:
proceedings have recently been issued in the first British Prozac
case. In 1996, 10 days after starting on Prozac, Reginald Payne from
Cornwall smothered his wife, Sally, to death and then jumped off a 60m
If Healy is right, and so many people have died for want of a warning
to GPs who prescribe Prozac, it is an indictment not just of Eli Lilly
but of the clinical trials system itself. In spite of all the work
involved in these trials, all the volunteers who take part in the hope
of helping themselves and benefiting mankind, and all the millions that
are spent, they prove only that a drug will not obviously harm you and
that it has some effect on the medical condition. They do not
satisfactorily detect the side effects that patients may go on to
suffer. And once the drug is licensed, the reporting of side effects by
GPs who hear about them from their patients is notoriously unreliable.
The difficulty with a drug such as Prozac, which works on the mind, is
that patients may not spontaneously report problems. During the trials,
for instance, only 5% reported sexual problems - it is now known that
half of those on the drug may experience changes in sexual
functioning. And how are they supposed to report a side effect, such
as akathisia, that they've probably never heard of?
The answer to this side effects problem, says Healy, is to draw up a
checklist. Patients in trials should be asked if they are suffering
from any of a range of possible side effects. One study has shown that
patients who are asked only to tell the doctor if they have a problem
may underestimate the side effects they suffer by a factor of six to
In fact, Healy says patients taking part in clinical trials where the
side effects are not recorded through a checklist may be putting
themselves in legal jeopardy. If they fail to tell the doctor of
problems they experience - perhaps because they do not understand what
is happening to them - they may damage their chances of compensation if
they later suffer harm.
Healy has identified problems with the licensing system, too, where
patients' demands encourage manufacturers to concentrate on finding
single "blockbuster" drugs that may make them millions, but may equally
break a company. The stakes are that high. So high, in fact, that Healy
wonders about the legal advice companies are getting - several tobacco
corporations, for example, have been advised by their lawyers not to do
research into the dangers of cigarettes for fear of increasing their
Whatever is going on inside the huge pharmaceutical multinationals
today, all that really matters is the depressed patients who go to see
their GP tomorrow. They may be very miserable, and they may need help.
But they are not so ill with depression that they want to kill
Prozac may well be the answer, but it may also be a final solution. A
warning and some close watching could make all the difference between
life and death.