Ask Your Doctor

Ask Your Doctor

Imagine you go to your doctor because following a marriage break up / redundancy / bereavement you find yourself unable to function as usual. You cry a lot, can’t eat or sleep, have lost interest in things you usually enjoy, feel worthless or guilty and have thoughts of ending it all.

Your doctor diagnoses you with depression and prescribes antidepressants. He or she extols the benefits of the drugs while warning they may cause anxiety, dizziness, headache, insomnia, nervousness, somnolence, tremor; diarrhoea, nausea; fatigue, dry mouth, sleep disorder and changes in sexual functioning.While the side effects sound unpleasant, they’re a minor irritant compared to the symptoms the doctor promises will be alleviated by the drug… and besides, your doctor tells you they will be ‘mild and transient.’

The side effects the doctor warns you of are those listed as very common or common by the company that manufactures the drug, occurring in between 1% and 10% of patients. They were identified in clinical trials conducted by the drug company in order to secure the approval for their drug necessary to releasing it on the market. They are not independent trials conducted by objective parties but trials whose goal was to produce data showing the drugs were safe and effective and allow those conducting the trials to create huge revenues. They were conducted decades ago. They are phase III clinical trials, not the more recent phase IV trials.

Clinical trials comprise five phases. The studies from which your doctor, and the regulator are gathering and promulgating adverse reaction information, are phase III trials. These trials test the drug on small, carefully selected populations who take the drug over a short period of time. Given the small number of participants, the exclusion of large groups of people from the trials and their short duration, they provide limited information on the adverse reactions caused by the drug being tested. The real test of how a drug will impact the people to whom it is prescribed comes in phase IV trials – the data collected from doctors and their patients after the drug has been released onto the market and studies conducted after the drug or treatment has been marketed.

Phase IV trials often test the drug’s interactions with other drugs and its effectiveness in certain populations that were not represented in previous clinical trials. In this phase, drugs are monitored for long-term side effects that clinical trials were unable to detect. This is important given the relatively short duration of phase III trials doesn’t allow for the collection of evidence of a drug’s long-term impact on subjects. A number of drugs approved as safe and effective following phase III trials have subsequently been withdrawn from market as a result of serious harms detected after the drug was released on the market.

While your doctor is unlikely to quote a study conducted by McDonalds in the 1980s to inform you of the risks and benefits of eating cheeseburgers three times a day, he or she is prepared to use drug company trial data to inform you of the risks of antidepressants, because the regulator promotes their doing so and because the drug company hands it to them on a plate and they are not required to make any effort to keep themselves properly informed.

What might your doctor tell you about the risks and benefits of antidepressants if he or she believed they were responsible for doing a bit of independent research to ensure you had all the information required for fully informed consent? What information might the regulator provide to you and your doctor if they were serious about their mission to “To enhance the health of New Zealanders by regulating medicines and medical devices to maximise safety and benefit.”

Perhaps they would tell you about the phase IV trial data on adverse reactions experienced by those prescribed the drug in New Zealand which the regulator has gathered over the past 12 years. Data which tells a very different story than that told by the phase III clinical trials – a story your doctor should know about and should be telling you.

Below is a chart showing the most frequently reported psychiatric adverse reactions and the percentage of patients they affected, as recorded by the Centre for Adverse Reaction Monitoring (CARM) in New Zealand. Those in red are reported in the drug company data as commonly occurring adverse reactions. Those in black are not – and are consequently not risks patients are informed about by their doctors

NZ Adverse Reaction Data – Fluoxetine

Now imagine you go to your doctor with your original symptoms and he or she explains that aggression and death are as common as dizziness in reports from doctors about adverse reactions to the drug you have been prescribed. That suicidal ideation and suicide attempt are as common as insomnia.

Imagine you were told that while being exposed to these risks, the post-marketing data showed that the most likely adverse reaction you would experience would be that the drug didn’t work or stopped working. How might your decision on this particular treatment option be affected? Might you ask why your doctor was prescribing you a drug that caused depression, lethargy, somnolence, weight loss or gain, suicidal thinking and behaviour to treat a disorder whose symptoms are depression, lethargy, somnoloence, weight and appetite changes and suicidality? Might you ask what alternatives were available? Might you refuse the prescription?

Might you then avoid the situation where after your child kills himself on antidepressants, you have to listen to the following exchange during your child’s inquest, as I did. An exchange that illustrates the impact of regulators allowing pharmaceutical companies to provide the offical advice on adverse reactions to lazy doctors who do not take their duty to patient care seriously?

Lawyer: It is correct, is it not, that one of the side effects of Fluoxetine is that it can deepen one’s depression?

Prescribing Psychiatrist: The indication for Fluoxetine is the treatment of depression.

Lawyer: Is it correct that it can also worsen somebody’s depression?

Prescribing Psychiatrist: It is not something I am that familiar with. Clearly it is indicated in the treatment of depression, not in the causation of depression.

Emergent or worsening depression has been the subject of adverse reaction reports in 2% of patients on whom CARM has been provided data. According to drug company protocols this makes it a ‘common reaction.’ Shame they forgot to mention it in the information they provide to doctors to inform their prescribing practice.

Drug companies, and probably doctors and regulators would argue that phase IV data is incomplete in that it represents a small fraction of patients taking the drug and only those adverse reactions doctors choose to report. I would argue that this is no different to phase III trials which include small numbers of subjects and have been proven to failed to report adverse reactions the drug companies didn’t want the regulator to know about.

In the end, our regulator advises doctors that informed consent requires patients be provided with information that a reasonable consumer, in that consumer’s circumstances, would expect to receive. Given phase III clinical trials of antidepressants did not include New Zealanders, particularly those from ethnic minorities and that recent data showing the actual impacts of these drugs on the health and functioning of New Zealanders is available for the past 12 years, it is my view that a reasonable consumer would want both the phase III and phase IV data when considering whether to take antidepressants.

I know how betrayed a parent feels when they are provided with this data only after their child dies from antidepressant-induced suicide.

My advice is that next time a drug company, regulator or TV advertisement urges you to ‘ask your doctor’ you ask not whether an antidepressant is right for you but how familiar they are with the New Zealand phase IV trial data and to what extent they use this data in making prescribing decisions.



  1. Suicide is a complex behavior. I do not believe there is enough evidence to blame any drug, alcohol or SSRIs, completely for any complex human behavior. At the most, drugs are contributing factor to what people do and don’t do. To use words like “induced”, is not something I agree with.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your opinion Anonymous. The University contracted by my government to conduct causality assessments, determined that the most likely cause of my son’s suicide was the SSRI he was prescribed 15 days before he killed himself. The assessment was based on the fact that a psychiatric assessment on the day he was prescribed showed he had no mental disorder and there was no other plausible reason for his suicide. On this basis, and despite your not agreeing with it, I will continue to describe my son’s suicide as SSRI induced.

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    • The problem with the black box business is that not enough people pay attention to information about the drugs they’re prescribed. And, on top of our own negligence, almost no doctors point this out or bring it to our attention. And even when it is brought to peoples’ attention, kids still get pumped full of the toxic things.

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  3. Maria, thank you so much for writing here on MIA. I think your situation shows the gravity of what is at stake with drugs that double the likeliness of suicide. I am very sorry for the tragic young death of your only child. I have spent a few hours reflecting on what that would be like– it’s so awful.

    I know that when I think back on the twelve years I spent enslaved to psychiatry, I want answers to why policy and procedures went as they did, but mostly I just wish I could have those years back without the psychiatric influence. When I realize this, I then wish for others to avoid the trap of psychiatry. I’m grateful to be alive and to be able to have a voice on the horrors I experienced under the influence of psychiatric drugs.

    I realize that many parents who lose their children to suicide often become big supporters of psychiatry and giving/raising money to find the “cure” to depression/bipolar/schizophrenia/etc. I’m grateful for your witness of finding psychiatry to be a guilty factor and not a solution.

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  4. Thanks everyone. Just want to point out that in New Zealand, there is no black box warning on SSRIs nor is there a patient information leaflet in the box which advises of risks and possible adverse reactions. The only thing my son and I were given was a pamphlet written by a psychiatrist which advised that SSRIs reduce suicide risk. This pamphlet was withdrawn by our Ministry of Health on the basis it was ‘outdated, inaccurate and misleading after I filed a complaint about it after my son died. When I raised concerns about the drug with my son’s doctor, I was correctly advised that under NZ Law I had no say in his medical treatment as he was over the age of 16. His colleague who was present during the discussion testified under oath at the inquest that the doctor did not advise me of any side effects and that when I tried to discuss them, and asked for an alternative treatment plan, the doctor was “authoritarian and aggressive” towards both me and my son.

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  5. I can’t imagine the pain you must feel Maria, and the courage you show in trying to understand the act, the cause and all its ramifications is truly remarkable. Your fight to uncover and expose truth in the circumstances of your son’s death show how staggering the resistance to honest awareness of human behavior really is. I can only empathize a little with the depth of frustration and anger you must feel at the “nobody really wants know,” mind numbing sense of it all.

    I’m reminded of suicide prevention training at Lifeline Sydney, back in 2003, when the trainer asked us “how long do think the average suicide attempt contemplates the act before acting?” Class discussion ranged from hours to weeks and months, in our answers, only to be told “as little as one minute,” with a tragic true story of a young woman who threw herself under a train, after her mobile network connection had failed during a during a conversation with a recently lost love. I was staggered by thought that the act can be and is, that impulsive, and we went on to discuss the overwhelming power of emotions to make us act on impulse, in a deep need to escape unbearable psychic pain.

    I think we are all guilty of shying away from our own nature though, holding it at arms length as we assume all stimulus to motivation comes from “out there,” and we shy away from discomforting internal awareness, we cover-up, we enact the most ubiquitous from of ignorance, ignore-it, rationalizing physiological reactions with all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses for our need to remain comfortably numb;

    “Prescribing Psychiatrist: The indication for Fluoxetine is the treatment of depression.

    Lawyer: Is it correct that it can also worsen somebody’s depression?

    Prescribing Psychiatrist: It is not something I am that familiar with. Clearly it is indicated in the treatment of depression, not in the causation of depression.”

    What part does our dependent nature play in this resistance to internal self-awareness and personal responsibility though? The patient depends on the Doctor, the Doctor depends on others too in an interwoven web which appears to be predicated on a deep need for denial, rather than an embrace of our own reality.

    When we make assumptions about cause, fault and apportion blame for circumstances in life, are we consciously aware of internal needs as we try to think through all the rights and wrongs? Can we be certain of simple cause and effect factors, or is there a more complex and systemic reality involved in our motivations?

    I wish the solution to the mess we have stumbled into, in our common assumptions about the cause and effect nature of our own reality, was likely to yield to more cause and effect logic, but I seriously doubt it. Until we all find the courage to be more open and honest about “what we are” rather than who we think we are, I fear that the the more things change, the more they are likely to stay the same.

    Thanks for your courage and determination to uncover the reality of such tragic circumstances.

    Best wishes,

    David Bates.

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  6. Dear Anonymous,

    I can concur that CARM [Center for Adverse Reactions Monitoring] have confirmed that Toran, Maria’s son, probable cause of death was due to the fluox he was prescribed. When making an assessment CARM took everything into account.

    A jpg of the assessment can be viewed here –

    To be defined as ‘probable’, according to the standardised case causality assessment used by the World Health Organization, [WHO] is explained in this link –

    The difference between ‘possible and ‘probable’ is also highlighted in this link –

    One could argue that CARM’s assessment could have been ‘certain’ but, perversely, to prove this Toran would have had to have died twice to return a cause of death by Fluox as ‘certain’.

    Bob Fiddaman

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