Suicide is common in the US, representing the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 18 to 65 and the third leading cause for those aged 15 to 24. Add to those figures the complexity of medications. In recent years, disturbing reports have suggested that side effects of some popular drugs – such as Chantix, Accutane, Singular and Paxil – include suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Reports have been filed with drug makers and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on at least six drugs or drug classes that may be linked to suicide or suicidal thoughts. Recently, the FDA released notices about several such medications including Singlulair; Epilepsy drugs including carbamazepine, gabapentin, felbamate, lamotrigine, levetiracetam, oxcarbazepine, pregabalin, and valproate; and the smoking-cessation drug Chantix. Reports have been filed on SSRI antidepressants including Paxil and Prozac, the influenza drug Tamiflu, and the acne medicine Accutane. “The brain is a complex organ, and most of the drugs are complex as well,’’ says Dr. Thomas Laughren, head of the division of psychiatric products at the FDA. “It’s not unreasonable to think that a drug that gets into the brain may have effects other than you hope they would.’’
Kelly Posner, principal investigator at the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment at Columbia University in New York, is working with the FDA to determine suicide risks and at-risk categories; Posner’s quantitative tools and questionnaires are being applied to drugs on the market and in testing. “We know that whether or not these drugs actually cause suicidal thought or action is a question we have to answer, but up until now, none of the clinical trials for the drugs were set up to address the question,’’ says Posner.
There are theories, says Jason Noel, director of clinical pharmacy services at Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, Maryland. Asthma medication Singulair has a similar chemical pathway to steroids, which can affect behavior and mood and an asthma diagnosis can trigger suicide or depression because it adversely affects daily living. Fatigue is a symptom of depression, the initial benefit of antidepressants is increased energy, and improving depression can take weeks; therefore, some may use extra energy to act on suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts in patients taking epilepsy drugs have been reported in patients on such medications for epilepsy, depression, or other psychiatric conditions; however, not generally in those on the drugs for migraines. Chantix blocks pleasure pathways that make nicotine so satisfying, which suppresses other pleasure and happiness, leading to depression. But, stopping smoking can be a risk factor for depression and smoking is a risk factor for suicide.
Finding links has risks. When the FDA discovered an increase in suicidal thinking in children and young adults taking antidepressants, warnings were added to Paxil and Prozac labeling. “Use of antidepressants went down and the suicide rate went up,’’ says Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.
Meanwhile, Congressman Bart Stupak (Democrat-Michigan) reported his teenage son B.J. killed himself in 1999 after several months on Accutane and said in 1998, the FDA publicly noted reports of depression, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts and actions with Accutane; in 1999 when B.J. was prescribed the drug, their doctor did not inform them of the Accutane depression risk and the prescription’s patient information did not include it. Though the manufacturer has made changes in the drug’s labeling, a lot of people have been already hurt. This can make them think over retaining a professional Accutane lawyer to assert their legal rights.