By Angela Bischoff, June 01, 2006.
Did Drugs Play a Role?
“The great gift of the human species is our minds. Our minds have two great aspects: we can imagine, and we can alter our environment… We must find ways to spice up our imaginations, and tap into our yearning for clean air and a livable city… We can evolve our city into a healthy place for people and nature, not asphalt and poison. We can do it. If we will it.” Tooker Gomberg, Sept. 13, 1999
Angela Bischoff is Tooker Gomberg’s surviving spouse. For 17 years the two of them traveled the world, educating and advocating on environmental and justice issues. Since Tooker’s passing Angela has been researching, writing and speaking about the dangers of anti-depressant drugs. See: www.greenspiration.org
I lost my best friend
I’m a suicide survivor. My soul-mate of 17 years, Tooker Gomberg, suicided March 3, 2004. My life was turned upside down — I lost my best friend and the world lost a warrior.
The pain around suicide is unfathomable, and indescribable, for those left behind, but especially for the person driven to take his/her own life. Unless you’ve been there, you just can’t know this darkest torture of the soul. I saw Tooker’s anguish, an anguish so deep and riveting that he saw no choice other than to end the suffering through death.
What could possibly drive him to such despair?
The world lost a warrior
Tooker Gomberg, internationally renowned environmental-, peace- and justice-activist, gave up the ghost at age 48. He was in an excellent relationship for 17 years; he had skills and friends; he was kind, humorous, courageous, a fighter, a leader, an environmental and social justice advocate; and he had fame and respect around the world.
His first depression hit in 2001-2 following the FTAA police clamp-down and horrific mass poisoning (tear gas, etc.) in Quebec City. Tooker was discouraged and exhausted, and his depression zapped the spark out of him for nine months. He tried many holistic alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs before turning to an SSRI antidepressant drug. Nothing seemed to help, but in time, he climbed out of his despair.
When his second depression hit a year later after moving to a new city and unemployed, he sought help through counseling and pharmaceutical drugs, partly because he was desperate, but also because that was the only option the health care system would pay for. Psychiatrists are covered, and the drugs they prescribe are covered, but doctors of Naturopathic medicine aren’t, nor are Cognitive Behavioral Therapists, or massage therapists, or acupuncturists, etc.
Tooker’s doctor prescribed Remeron, an antidepressant drug in a class of its own, but sometimes referred to as an SNRI. His anxiety and agitation went through the roof – clearly an adverse reaction – however his psychiatrist didn’t perceive it as such, and encouraged him to stick with the program, increasing the dosage to the maximum. After just five weeks on the drug, Tooker’s agitation sent him over the railing of the MacDonald Bridge in Halifax.
He wrote in his suicide note that he was anxious, felt like a zombie, and couldn’t think.
Let’s look at the facts
Three weeks after Tooker passed, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publicly associated antidepressant drugs with worsened depression and suicidal ideation. I was dumbfounded, and immediately immersed myself in this field, reading everything I could on what had been written to corroborate this bold assertion. It became obvious to me that Tooker was most definitely affected adversely by the drug he was on.
I’m no expert. I’m not a scientist. I’m a survivor who was motivated to peek behind the corporate curtain and study what the independent experts were saying about the connection between antidepressant drugs and suicide. And what I learned astounded me.
I read the writings of two experts: Dr. David Healy from England, and Dr. Peter Breggin from the US, both distinguished physicians of high academic standing and international credibility. Much of what they published in their books came from years in the courts as medical experts, pouring over company data made available through court injunctions, previously unavailable to the public, such as unreported clinical trial data, internal memos, etc.
What I learned is that typically one in four patients feels worse when beginning any antidepressant drug and ‘drops out’ or quits use of the drug within the first month, and almost half quit within three months. That is to say that while antidepressant drugs may help some people, they are not reliable, not even close.
That might not be such a problem if drug companies were straight up about this, but that wouldn’t be good for sales. On the contrary doctors are instructed, through industry propaganda, to ‘reduce’ patient drop out by ‘managing’ the side effects and encouraging patients to stick with the program rather than encouraging physicians to listen to patients’ individual sensitivities.
Perhaps if Tooker’s doctor had been better informed about the adverse reaction of agitation, Tooker would be alive today. Instead, his doctor repeatedly upped the dosage and prescribed a tranquilizer to calm his agitation.
Agitation is a very common side effect of antidepressant drugs, primarily during the early stages of treatment or shortly after a change in dosage (up or down). Extreme agitation is known as akathisia, an internal unrest, turmoil, or torture.
In clinical trials for SSRIs (the most commonly prescribed family of antidepressants), this reaction has been well-recognized and documented since the early ’80s. Prozac’s own clinical trials, prior to its launch in 1988 and post-launch, recorded rates of agitation and akathisia from between 5 and 25%.
Conservatively speaking then, one in 20 patients becomes agitated on antidepressant drugs — 5% is a significant adverse reaction that doctors need to be informed about and need to warn patients about, but they generally don’t. The concern is that agitation is a very potent predictor of suicide and violence.
By extrapolating from clinical trial data and multiplying by numbers of users, Dr. David Healy claims that one in 500 users of antidepressant drugs will complete suicide because of the drug. That’s 100,000 tragic and unnecessary deaths.
Clearly, drug companies have a lot to lose if this information becomes well understood since there are 40-50 million people world wide on antidepressant drugs, and the number is growing — there was an 80% increase in antidepressant prescriptions in Canada from 1999 – 2004.
In February 2005, an incredible study authored by Dr. Dean Fergusson was published in the British Medical Journal. Dr. Fergusson is a scientist with the Ottawa Health Research Institute, and teaches in the Dept. of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. His meta-analysis reviewed data on 90,000 patients from some 700 clinical trials. His team found that patients are twice as likely to attempt suicide on antidepressants as on sugar pills. This result confirmed other study results of 2000 and 2001.
Huh? Patients are put on antidepressant drugs to lower suicide risk, not double it!
Just how effective are antidepressants in relieving symptoms of depression? Incredibly, there is little evidence that antidepressant drugs actually produce benefits. We know that they may help some people in the short term, but over the long term we find a worsening of depression or anxiety compared to placebo-treated patients. Too often new and more severe psychiatric symptoms are triggered by the drug itself, such as drug-induced manic or psychotic attacks, which just means more drugs to counter those symptoms, and so on. For everyone helped by a drug treatment, there may be another harmed.
And then there’s the disturbing and very real issue of dependence on antidepressants. When you try to stop taking these drugs, you can suffer an emotionally-distressing withdrawal that includes ‘crashing’ with depression, fatigue, and feelings of hopelessness, and often involves painful physical symptoms such as flulike syndrome, muscle cramps, and shock-like headaches.
A causal relationship between antidepressants and suicide has been established since the early ’80s; why did it take till 2004 before regulatory agencies requested of drug companies that they warn consumers and physicians? How many people needlessly died in that time? How many are still to die?
What are the alternatives to antidepressant drugs?
Some people claim that antidepressant drugs saved their lives; others claim harm. Besides pharmaceutical drugs, there’s much we can do to treat depression and anxiety, especially of the mild and moderate sort, which is where it all starts.
Most importantly, we all need to support those in our life who are suffering, especially during their crisis periods. Depression is cyclical. It comes and goes. When someone is in the depth of despair, they may not think rationally. They need you to give them a reality check, to remind them that they’re worthy of love and life. Get them beyond their valley of darkness. And when you’re going through a dark night of the soul yourself, someone will be there for you, to pull you back from the brink. Community breeds compassion.
Eat like your body is a temple of the spirit – precious, impermanent, vulnerable. Eat organic, raw, low on the food chain, and as unprocessed as possible. Love to cook for yourself; no restaurant can cook as inexpensively or as healthily as you can.
Exercise like a fiend. There’s evidence that regular physical activity is the best long-term treatment for depression. It focuses and calms the mind, burns fat, aids digestion and circulation, tones muscles, strengthens bone, improves heart and lung functions, and best of all, makes you feel good about yourself. Exercise gets the endorphins flowing.
Always make time for fun, friends, art, reading, dance, music, meditation, prayer, journalling – whatever it is that brings you peace. These will strengthen your spirit and give your life balance and resiliency. Remaining engaged, whether in solo activity or community, is fundamental.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a popular psychotherapy that teaches and gives tools on how to recognize and change dysfunctional thought patterns. In combination with exercise, it has achieved excellent success in treating depression over the long term.
There are many other systems worth trying that have helped countless people suffering with depression – naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, supplements. But in the end, it all comes down to self awareness. Notice what the therapy is doing for you and to you. Are the side effects worth it? Are you feeling better or worse?
Don’t walk this journey alone. Confide in someone every step of the way to be sure you don’t fall off the rails like Tooker did. It could happen to you or to anyone. Remember – it’s all about growth. Embrace it. You’re worth it.
Light a candle
Clearly it’s better to light a candle then curse the darkness. With intelligence and integrity, and with the intention of patient safety rather than profit motive, we can save lives. With compassion and skill — and a dose of generosity — each of us can reach out to those we love during their dark times. We must. It will come back to us in spades. We’re all making a difference. We all can change the world.
The last word goes to Tooker: “We can do it. If we will it.”