Drug company-funded anti-suicide groups on campus raises questions

Many are baffled why the suicide rate in the United States is rising despite antidepressant use being at an all time high. Suicide has risen to 38,000 a year, says USA Today, after falling in the 1990s despite almost a quarter of the population in some age groups taking antidepressants and use of some psychiatric drugs growing by 700% in the military. Shouldn’t suicides be going down?

Press reports about suicide usually ignore the black box warning on antidepressants that says “WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS AND BEHAVIORS,” “Increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children, adolescents, and young adults taking antidepressants,” and “Monitor for worsening and emergence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors .” Oh, that.

Use of suicide-linked drugs in military personnel (who, of course, are young adults) is rampant and 36 percent of the troops who killed themselves had never even deployed concedes a 2010 Army report called Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention. That means it was not the stress of combat or deployment that caused their suicides.

Since drug safety activists and families touched by suicide succeeded in getting black box warnings on antidepressants, the drug industry has sought to blame rising suicides on the warnings themselves because they are a “barrier” to treatment. What? The claim is as nonsensical as blaming obesity on lack of diet drugs and one drug consultant actually had to retract his assertions in The New York Times.

While many know the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI gets the majority of its donations from drug makers (according to congressional investigators) many “suicide prevention” groups are also drug-funded. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention received $100,000 from Eli Lilly in 2011 and $50,000 in 2012 and was led for a time by psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff who left Emory University after Congress found he failed to disclose at least $1.2 million in drug industry income. Another group is Active Minds, located on at least 100 campuses and funded by Eli Lilly, NAMI and AstraZeneca among other donors. This month, in a feature about campus suicides, New York Times magazine refers to Active Minds as an “advocacy group.

Active Minds calls itself a student group but when I went to the room in the student building at Northwestern University where the organization was supposed to be headquartered, they were not there—nor had a desk clerk in the student union ever heard of them. Unlike true student groups working against climate change or for gender equality, Active Minds sports high-budget signs and T-shirts which have “Big Pharma” written all over them.

After the apparent suicides of two Northwestern University students in Evanston, Illinois, in 2012, Active Minds and NAMI descended upon the campus decrying “barriers” to treatments. But were the students actually on the psychoactive drugs the groups implied they were barred from when they killed themselves? Or were they suffering from the effects of terminating the drugs which is also considered a dangerous window? Were Active Minds and NAMI using the suicides as a sales opportunity for drugs that cost between three and four digits a month? Reports from the medical examiner or university health service were not disclosed so we will never know.

This month on its Facebook page, Active Minds is wooing minority students and students with addictions to drugs and alcohol. It is using the term “recovery” for the latter, a term normally associated with drug-free, self-help programs not more drugs.

The millions of antidepressants Americans are swallowing are not lowering suicide and may be increasing it—per their own labels. Are drug companies really trying to prevent suicide or a loss in their own profits?

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.

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