One of the most difficult meetings I ever held at the FDA was with a group of parents (mostly moms) of teenagers who had committed suicide while taking SSRI antidepressants. In the wake of a very emotional advisory committee meeting, heavily covered by the media, these well-meaning and understandably devastated parents believed that these medicines were the cause of their horrible losses. I listened. Afterwards I wept. A parent of two children, I cannot even begin to understand their agony.
But as much as they needed to believe that the medications were at fault, the science was never clear. Anecdotal events, even terrible ones, are not science. Now a major new study, the first of its kind, finds that rather than boosting suicide rates, SSRIs have actually saved thousands of lives by preventing suicides since they were introduced in 1988.
And before you ask, no, the study was not funded by a pharmaceutical company. The funding came from the NIH and the Dana Foundation. The full study appears in the June issue of the journal PLos Medicine.
For this study, the authors analyzed federal data on suicide rates since 1960, along with sales of fluoxetine (Prozac) since it became available in 1988. Analysis was continued through 2002. Prozac was used as a benchmark for the broader class of drugs.
Between the early 1960s and 1988, suicide rates held relatively steady, fluctuating between 12.2 per 100,000 and 13.7 per 100,000.
Since 1988, however, suicide rates have been on a gradual decline, with the lowest point being 10.4 per 100,000 in 2000. During the same time frame, Prozac prescriptions rose, from 2,469,000 in 1988 to 33,320,000 in 2002.
Using mathematical modeling, the investigators estimated the rates of suicide if the pre-1988 trends had continued, estimating that there would have been an additional 33,600 suicides if the pre-1988 trends had been maintained.
With that in mind, moves to restrict the use of SSRI antidepressantscould have a harmful effect, the authors stated.
“I don’t think these claims that antidepressants increase suicide have a solid base,” said Dr. Julio Licinio, lead author of the study and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami.
“If you have a drug that’s supposed to be causing something, the more of the drug that’s used, the more of the bad outcome you would have. What we show is the converse.”
Whille this new science will provide little solice to the parents I met, it will help mental health professionals, their patients — and their patients’ loved ones — better understand the value of available therapies.
And that’s important. Very.