The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can Drugs Trigger Violence?

Americans have a hard time imagining that a drug could change someone’s behavior. Maybe that’s why the Zoloft defense failed.
A jury took just six hours to decide that Christopher Pittman was guilty of murder in the death of his grandparents. The defense claimed that the then-12-year-old was “involuntarily intoxicated” by the antidepressant Zoloft. But the jury didn’t believe that a drug confused him so he couldn’t tell right from wrong.
For decades experts argued whether this class of medications (Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc) could make someone suicidal. Recently the FDA issued a warning that states: “Patients who are started on therapy should be observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior.”
Although the FDA acknowledges that some people on such drugs may harm themselves, many Americans can’t believe that drugs could lead someone to harm another person. Yet we have heard from readers of this column that such drugs have affected their thinking and judgment:
“Several years ago, on a recommendation from a counselor, I started Prozac. I was hesitant to start, since I had heard of a man who committed suicide after starting Prozac. But I went ahead and began taking the minimum dose.
“Side effects started immediately. I had headaches, constipation and a total loss of sexual feelings. After a month, wild thoughts came into my mind, especially while driving. I wanted to ram into other cars to show them they shouldn’t drive so rudely. I wanted to get a gun and kill a coworker who irritated me.
“The counselor said it was all in my mind and that the drug was really going to help me eventually. Ha.
“After I stopped taking it, the side effects gradually went away. Prozac is a dangerous drug and it should be closely monitored in everyone who takes it, not just children.”
Most people can use these drugs safely. But for some, SSRI antidepressants radically change their perceptions of reality.
Antidepressants aren’t the only medications that affect personality. High doses of corticosteroid medicines like prednisone are notorious for causing euphoria, depression, anxiety, agitation, insomnia, mood swings or even hallucinations.
The Armed Forces are also struggling with the possibility that an antimalarial drug (Lariam) taken by troops in Iraq may cause serious psychological reactions. The FDA now requires that patients be warned that some people taking Lariam experience paranoia, severe anxiety, depression, hallucinations or suicidal thoughts.
Readers who would like to know more about such unexpected consequences may wish to consult our Guides to Antidepressants Pros and Cons and Psychological Side Effects. Anyone who would like copies should send $2 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped (60 cents), self-addressed envelope: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. MX-23, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.
Friends and family need to be vigilant whenever they suspect a person may be experiencing personality changes brought on by medication. Whether it’s a heart medicine, an antibiotic or an antidepressant, such drug-induced episodes can be disastrous

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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