The Astonishing Zyprexa Cover-Up

Dick Russell
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Last week, I was interviewed by Jesse Ventura (with whom I’ve co-authored five books) for one of his upcoming weekly Podcasts, “We the People.”  When we began talking about my recently-published memoir, My Mysterious Son, we zeroed in on the health impacts of the big pharmaceutical companies and their antipsychotic medications – a story with which I was painfully familiar.

This week I will be interviewed on Ru-Tv’s news program “Breaking the Set” about this and other elements of “My Mysterious Son.” It is scheduled to air in the near future.

Back in 2006, when my son Franklin was in his late twenties and living in a group home in the Boston area, he refused to take Clozaril any more because of the required bi-weekly blood draws.  His doctor prescribed Zyprexa as a substitute, and Frank suddenly began to gain weight … a lot of weight.  The group home staff blamed this on inactivity, as it was winter and Frank began retreating more and more to his room.

Before long, a physical revealed that my son’s heart rate was more than twice what it should be.  Frank’s eyes began rolling back in his head, a sign of paranoia that hadn’t occurred in a few years, and which often seemed to arise out of nowhere but he said happens when he becomes fearful.

He agreed to stop by a YMCA and I got him a membership.  Frank began working out fairly regularly and, to my great relief, his heart rate soon fell dramatically.  But his cholesterol level was high – which meant yet another medication.  Though he continued to gain weight, the medication therapist didn’t seem inclined to change a thing!  He was simply eating too much, the “authorities” believed.

Within months he’d put on at least 75 pounds, ballooning up to almost 300.  And he was diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.

That December, 2006, perusing an online edition of the New York Times, I came across a front-page article about Zyprexa.  It began: “The drug maker Eli Lilly has engaged in a decade-long effort to play down the health risks of Zyprexa, its best-selling medication for schizophrenia, according to hundreds of internal Lilly documents and e-mail messages among top company managers.  The documents, given to the Times by a lawyer representing mentally ill patients, show that Lilly executives kept important information from doctors about Zyprexa’s links to obesity and its tendency to raise blood sugar – both known risk factors for diabetes.”

The company had told its sales representatives to play down such data with doctors, including the fact that some patients had reported gaining a hundred pounds or more.  The documents revealed that Eli Llly had been concerned about these side effects since 1999, which I recalled as the year Frank was first prescribed the drug.  Zyprexa was by far the pharmaceutical company’s top selling product, hitting some $4.2 billion in revenues in 2005, and being prescribed to about two million people worldwide.  Also in 2005, the company had agreed to pay $750 million to settle class action lawsuits by 8,000 people, and thousands more claims were still pending.1

Later, I would learn that UCLA psychiatrist Dr. William Wirshing had said of Zyprexa prior to its 1996 approval by the FDA:  “It is just un-stinkin’-believable.  It is the best drug for gaining weight I’ve ever seen.”  The doctor indicated that taking ten milligrams of the medication was equivalent to ingesting 1,500 extra calories per day.2

My outrage knew no bounds.  They knew all along.  The bastards!  They had plenty of evidence!  Prescribing physicians had the wool pulled over their eyes, or had blinders on, or maybe something worse … I set out on an intense Internet search for a class action suit in which to involve Franklin.  Several U.S. law firms seemed to still be pursuing this.

It would be another six years before I learned more about the background of the Zyprexa story in a book called Pharmageddon.  Author David Healy recounted:  “The first generation of antipsychotics ran into problems in the 1970s with million-dollar legal settlements against their manufacturers for a disfiguring neurological side effect of treatment – tardive dyskinesia [a disorder resulting in involuntary, repetitive body movements].  This led to a period of almost twenty years when no new antipsychotic came on the market.  The only antipsychotic that did not cause this problem was clozapine [Clozaril was the brand name], but clozapine had been withdrawn in 1975 because it was associated with a higher rate of mortality than other antipsychotics.  The way forward seemed to lie in producing a safe clozapine.”

One way to do so was “to make minor adjustments to the clozapine molecule.  Tweaking a molecule risks producing a compound with all the hazards and none of the benefits of the parent.  This is what Lilly did:  in 1974 the company produced a series of compounds that were all abandoned because of toxicity.”  The company was in “serious financial trouble, facing potential takeover … On April 29, 1982, they opted to move forward with a compound from the original series that by definition was not novel – olanzapine, later branded as Zyprexa.  To make Zyprexa commercially viable, they needed a new patent, which meant demonstrating some benefit not found with other antipsychotics.  In 1991, the only novelty presented in the company’s new patent application, which was approved, was a study in dogs in which Zyprexa produced less elevation of blood cholesterol levels than another never-marketed drug.

Healy went on: “Zyprexa has since turned out to be one of the drugs most likely in all of medicine to increase cholesterol levels in man … There was arguably a better case to be made for patenting it to raise cholesterol than to treat psychosis … There was no basis to think this drug was any more effective than dozens of others and a lot of reasons to think it was more problematic for patients, but the marketing power that came with its patented status enabled Lily to hype its benefits and conceal its hazards and steer doctors to write enough Zyprexa prescriptions to save the company.”3

From Franklin’s journal:

The Mental Health System in the U.S. in this time, in this era, this 2000 period of time, people seem to assume that they know reality and others do not.  Doctors believe they are fully knowledgeable of the scientific area.  These doctors go around diagnosing people of this disease and that.  Many times they steal lives and get paid for it.  I resisted treatment in my young years.”

Franklin got off Zyprexa and agreed to resume a lesser amount of Clozaril, prior to spending more than a year at an alternative treatment facility for young adults called Earth House in rural New Jersey.  During that period, remarkably he dropped almost a hundred pounds and regained his health (the diabetes diagnosis disappeared), through a sound organic diet and seeing an orthomolecular specialist.  The class-action suit against Eli Lilly and Zyprexa in which I enrolled him did eventually result in some compensation for all that he had been through

The time has now come to call an end to the psychopharmacological revolution … [it] now has to meld into a quiet world where drug therapy … will be joined by other approaches as equal partners, preferably working together in harness rather than in conflict.”

– Peter Tyrer, Editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry, August 2012.4

In a bookstore, I found myself drawn to a paperback by Robert Whitaker called Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Metal Illness in America.  The author wasn’t an advocate, but a former Boston Globe reporter whose series on the pharmaceutical industry led him to write Mad In America and now this book.  And what I read was appalling, and terrifying, though by this time not unexpected.

The figures boggled the mind: since 1987, a fifty-fold increase in sales of psychiatric drugs, from $800 million to more than $40 billion.  This coincided with a vast increase in people receiving government-funded psychiatric disability payments (with all medication costs covered by insurance), from 1.2 million adults twenty years earlier to four million adults in 2007.  And now the reach has extended to children – from 16,000 diagnosed with mental ills necessitating psychotropic medication in 1987, to more than 600,000 today.5

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was that, while anti-psychotic drugs may prove effective for short periods, their long-term use often causes deterioration of brain function.  Schizophrenic-diagnosed patients who’ve been on medication for years, and then stop taking it, generally relapse in worse condition than before.  Yet studies by the World Health Organization, comparing schizophrenia outcomes in developed countries like the U.S. versus nations like Nigeria where the drugs weren’t generally available, found a much higher rate of recovery without them within two years in the poorer countries.6

Since Robert Whitaker lived in the Boston area, I arranged a get-together where I spoke to him about Franklin.  And I learned a great deal from this impassioned man who’d started a Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health.  Whitaker told me frankly that the Clozaril my son takes is the most effective antipsychotic, but also especially difficult in terms of withdrawal once you’ve been on it for a long time.  Also, epigenetic changes that it can cause in the brain may prove irreversible.  No easy answers; it’s a real Catch-22.  But support is crucial, Whitaker adds encouragingly.

Whitaker was to give the opening speech at a two-day conference in Maine toward the end of September, called “Innovative Solutions to Building Recovery with Alternatives to Psychotropic Medications.”  I made the two-hour drive up from Boston.  The most striking part of Whitaker’s Powerpoint presentation was that medical experts have doubted the long-term effectiveness of antipsychotic medications for a very long time.  Since hyperactivity of the brain’s dopamine system had been theorized as the root cause of schizophrenia, most of the newer drugs (interestingly, not Clozaril) were aimed at blocking dopamine receptors by as much as 70 percent.  The brain tries to compensate by becoming “supersensitive” to dopamine, with the drugs triggering an increase in the density of dopamine receptors.  Which, over the long haul, makes patients more biologically prone to psychosis, and as well as causing worse relapses upon withdrawal of the drugs.

But since the early 1980s, studies had generally been geared toward finding favorable outcomes; indeed, the drug companies themselves often wrote the articles for medical journals.  It’s as though the drug companies have designed their products to ensure a lifetime of dependency.

And virtually no long-term research existed into the results of tapering slowly off of these medications.

In 2003, a fourteen-year-long study of more than 500 schizophrenia patients, overseen by Nancy Andreasen (editor in chief of the American Journal of Psychiatry) reported that MRI imaging tests showed a decline in brain volumes related to the antipsychotic drugs, including decreases in both white and grey matter.  “The prefrontal cortex doesn’t get the input it needs” and gradually atrophies, Andreasen said in 2008, because the medications “block basal ganglia activity.”7

Yet the drug model has become so ingrained in our culture that I couldn’t recall a whit of doubt ever being raised by Franklin’s doctors about whether he should stay on his medication.  No one talked about alternatives.  No one mentioned that Loren Mosher, in charge of schizophrenia studies at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1970s, had conducted an experiment comparing conventional treatment in a hospital setting to the Soteria Project that he’d initiated.  This was a group home environment with minimal use of antipsychotics.  At the end of two years, the Soteria patients had “lower psychopathology scores, fewer (hospital) readmissions, and better global adjustment” than those treated with antipsychotics.  And only 31 percent who remained off these neuroleptics after leaving the program ever relapsed.8

Hearing all this – hearing an older woman ask, “were we human beings before we became a diagnosis?” – on Franklin’s behalf I felt cheated, even conspired against.  “We are surrounded by sudden genetic epidemics,” said Dr. Miles Simmons, “and Big Pharma is laughing all the way to the bank.”  He and other speakers discuss the value of nutritional supplements, such as the orthomolecular approach that had proven so beneficial for Franklin at Earth House.  But would he be willing to do this again, having abandoned the vitamin regimen (with no argument from his Boston therapist) soon after leaving their program.

Then, during one of the audience participation periods, I heard a woman’s voice in the back of the room raise something about … shamanism.  The speaker onstage offered no response.  But my curiosity was piqued.  I was in the middle of reading The Horse Boy, a father-son story recounting how author Rupert Issacson’s little boy, a victim of severe autism, begins to improve after learning to ride a neighbor’s horse.  As a travel writer, Isaacson was then struck by a wild idea – to take his son to Mongolia, the one place on the planet where horses and shamanic healing intersect.

Taking a break from the proceedings, I found myself in the outer hallway standing near a young woman.  We were the only people there.  Although I hadn’t been able to see the face of the questioner, I had a curious feeling that she was the one who tried to bring up shamanism.  I guessed right.  She was a psychiatric registered nurse in Maine who did some shamanic study part-time.  And for me, that moment marked the beginning of a quest that would dramatically improve Franklin’s life.

* * * * *

References:

1. The New York Times series by Alex Berenson began appearing on December 17, 2006.

2. Dr. William Wirshing is quoted in “Bitter Pill,” by Ben Wallace-Wells, in Rolling Stone’s article on Zyprexa, February 5, 2009.

3. Zyprexa and Clozaril:  Pharmageddon, pp. 31-32.

4. “From the Editor’s Desk,” by Peter Tyrer, BJP 2012, 201:168.

5. Statistics on psychiatric drugs:  Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway paperback, 2010

6. World Health Organization study:  Anatomy of an Epidemic, pp. 110-11.

7. Nancy Andreasen: quoted in Robert Whitaker, Mad in America, Basic Books, 2010, pp. 297-8.

8. Soteria Project: www.madinamerica.com, March 8, 2012.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for your impassioned viewpoint of what is wrong with the schizophrenia treatment model today. I’ve been around much of the same block as you have with your son, and I just wanted to comment on a few things you said, to offer a little bit of hope to others worried about the drugs they have been taking.
    You write:
    “Schizophrenic-diagnosed patients who’ve been on medication for years, and then stop taking it, generally relapse in worse condition than before.”
    My experience: Yes, that is the generally accepted view,(maybe promulgated by Pharma?) and can often be the case, but it may depend on what else is happening in the person’s life. If someone relies on drug only treatment, believes in the diseased brain model and so do the people around him, then chances are, IMO, the relapse will be prolonged because nobody has any other tools at their disposal, and fear will give way to increased symptoms. When my son has his third relapse and was hospitalized for three months, he was in much better mental shape going in to the hospital because he had been pursuing other forms of therapy. When he got out of the hospital, (unfortunately having been put back on drugs), it was clear to me that my husband and I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we could improve on what we were doing. We brought in more unusual therapies and changed our own ideas about the expected pace of recovery.
    Re clozapine: The holistic psychiatrist told me how hard it was to get off clozapine, and my heart sank. I think my son had been on it about two years by then. He got off it and the other drug he was taking through use of supplements. It can be done, as the Earth House treatment showed you. On the other hand, I also have reservations about the effectiveness of supplements. My son still relapsed after getting off the clozapine even though he was on a boatload of supplements. The supplements were their own form of tyranny, in that you still had to swallow them (many, many of them) every day. The shamanic approach – I really am so delighted you and your son are publicizing this route. To me, vibration and shamanism get right to the heart of what it is to be human. Recovery can really take off because the person becomes fully engaged and is not on the passive receiving end of what being a patient means.
    I wish everybody reading your post will also read your book. It’s terrific.

    • There are many things wrong with mental health treatment in America. This country would be much better off guaranteeing food, shelter and medication for every single citizen as opposed to spending money foolishly on psychiatric medications. The threat of going homeless is a one of the major causes of anxiety out there that causes mental illness. How is a psychiatric medication going to help a person who does not have dependable access to food and shelter?
      Many of the mental health centers are ruining the lives of very intelligent people, with drugs like Zyprexa, for their own selfish reasons such as profit. There are a number of other health conditions that play into mental health problems. The majority of mental health professionals do not assist with looking into other health problems because it is not profitable. Mental health continues to betray very intelligent people who have contributed enormously and also have the ability to contribute in ways that most others aren’t capable of contributing. Society is not profiting by behaving in such a manner.
      People with mental health issues are often very intelligent. Psychiatric diagnosis was largely invented to take credibility away from people so they would not be able to stand up for themselves. These actions are often part of America’s competitive nature, but they are mostly counterproductive. People with mental health issues are abused often. They are harassed by others who use stigma involved with so-called mental illness to blame because they think they are winning by acting in such a manner. America needs to act responsibly toward one another in dealing with mental health issues to achieve the best results.

    • But, the sad thing is that these types of medications are being used to “treat” depression and, in my own case, PTSD as well. It is such a sad picture when anti-psychotics are pushed for things they were never intended for, but the history of psychiatry and pharmaco marriage has been just that since the earliest days. That these abuses are allowed to continue without consequences is simply absurd.

  2. Thanks so much for your piece Dick. It reminds me more than ever the need to make sure people don’t get started on strong neuroleptics because the road becomes much more challenging if you’ve been taking them for long periods. As a therapist I have been working with several young people who were diagnosed “First break” and then given whopping doses of mood stabilizers and antipsychotics. Each one has been told that taking meds for their “illness” is just like taking insulin for diabetes.

    With the help of holistic minded NPs and naturopaths, they have weaned off these neuroleptics as quickly as possible and a team of us support that process. The problem comes that some people are not on board…family members, friends, and it can create a split because it defies psychiatric “advice”.

    As you write…the evidence is clear. Chronic use of drugs like Zyprexa rearrange neurochemistry to make one increasingly sensitive with a heightened potential for disability and “relapse” into psychosis.

    The shamanic piece is very interesting as well as I believe we have completely discounted traditional techniques of healing that have long been a part of indigenous cultures throughout the world. There is a pressing need to explore these deeper fountains of wisdom. Thanks for your words.

    • “As a travel writer, Isaacson was then struck by a wild idea – to take his son to Mongolia, the one place on the planet where horses and shamanic healing intersect.”
      This is the best advice I’ve heard. There’s a theory that the shamanic crisis is basically what we tend to describe as first episode psychosis.

      Zyprexa is now being prescribed not only as an “anti-psychotic” but also anti-depressant, mood stabilizer and a general “it will make you calmer” drug (no kidding – an answer I got asking a psychiatrist why the hell was he prescribing it to someone not suffering from psychosis).
      Are they so stupid or are they so evil?

  3. I am now working on writing my story, and ironically I’m at the point where I was put on Zyprexa. My doctor was big into poly pharmacy, so as I’m writing I’m checking the drug interactions of the drugs I was put on. And I came across something very interesting in regards to the drug interaction warnings of both Risperdal and Seroquel with the Zyperexa.

    “Agents with anticholinergic properties (… neuroleptics …) may have additive effects when used in combination … Central symptoms may include memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, hallucinations, psychosis, delirium, hyperactivity, twitching or jerking movements, stereotypy, and seizures.”

    Compare this with today’s definition of schizophrenia, and the definition of schizophrenia when it still included the uncontrolled movement disorders. It’s basically the exact same thing, except anticholinergic intoxication includes “hyperactivity” and schizophrenia “inactivity.” My doctor at the time was insisting I should be “eliminating activities.”

    One has to wonder in this day of massive poly pharmacy exactly how many cases of “schizophrenia” and “bipolar” today, aren’t actually misdiagnoses of the known central symptoms of anticholinergic intoxication, due to overmedication with neuroleptics. My personal theory is this is likely the primary cause of the schizophrenia symptoms in our society today, and historically.

    As of yesterday, there were absolutely no scholarly articles on the web discussing the similarities and differences between the disorder known as schizophrenia and the central symptoms of anticholinergic intoxication, a known adverse drug interaction effect of poly pharmacy with multiple neuroleptics. I believe this is a topic the “professionals” should start discussing. Those professionals claiming their drugs can’t possibly be causing the symptoms of the major “mental illnesses” are incorrect.

    Best of luck with your book, and my best to your son as well.

    • There’s a major problem with practically every psych drug causing the exact same symptoms it’s supposed to treat. It’d be a major problem if insulin caused higher blood sugar in a big percentage of diabetics, wouldn’t it? It just goes to show how much bs it all is.

      • I’m quite certain the psychiatrists sat around discussing the symptoms of their patients – not admitting to themselves (or understanding) these were almost all iatrogenic symptoms – as they voted their DSM “mental illnesses” into existence.

        I’m just trying to point out medical evidence that even schizophrenia is likely a partially or completely iatrogenic illness. It’s already been confessed that most bipolar is caused by iatrogenesis.

  4. I have a medical condition that sometimes requires me to take prednisone and it turns my world upside down and thrusts me back to memories of my traumatic forced drugged childhood. The doctors make such a big deal out of the fact that prednisone can cause such “horrible” side effects but when comparing both the short term and long term effects of that drug to any of the neuroleptics… it’s no contest. Neuroleptic drugs are way worse. Yet while real doctors try their best to keep even sick and dying patients off prednisone for more than a month, psychiatrists are out forcing parents to drug their kids amid custody battle threats like that DJ Koontz kid from the PBS documentary, the kid so messed up by the brain damage caused by those drugs he had movement disorders so severe he couldn’t even walk properly, they just sit back and watch like it’s no big deal. Tell the parents he’ll still need those drugs for the rest of his life, even though only a few years in he’s so screwed up he cant even eat without food falling out of his mouth… and this atrocity is happening right out in the open… and nothing is being done about it.

  5. The actions by Eli Lilly were a crime against humanity.

    And also mass murder by poisoning.

    No one went to prison.

    Click below to see the Eli Lilly internal E-mail . They knew they were pushing poison.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20120122013020/http://www.furiousseasons.com/zyprexa%20documents/ZY100378062.pdf

    http://crashrecovery.org/ton/zyprexadocs.html

    http://web.archive.org/web/20140420054013/http://crashrecovery.org/ton/zyprexadocs.html

    • NAMI’s leading donor is Eli Lilly and Company, maker of Prozac, [and Zyprexa] which gave $2.87 million during that period. In 1999 alone, Lilly will have delivered $1.1 million in quarterly installments, with the lion’s share going to help fund NAMI’s “Campaign to End Discrimination” against the mentally ill.

      In the case of Lilly, at least, “funding” takes more than one form. Jerry Radke, a Lilly executive, is “on loan” to NAMI, working out of the organization’s headquarters. Flynn explains the cozy-seeming arrangement by saying, “[Lilly] pays his salary, but he does not report to them, and he is not involved in meetings we have with [them].” She characterizes Radke’s role at NAMI as “strategic planning.”

      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/1999/11/prozacorg

      A “grassroots” organization !

  6. One thing I have read, is that Zyprexa was marketed in Japan differently than the USA. In japan the drug company sales reps were told to go ahead and acknowledge its issues with regard to type 2 Diabetes/metabolic syndrome, while they were told to hide them here in the USA.

    This drug continues to be widely prescribed, and makes its manufacturer billions a year.

  7. PD is caused by the progressive loss of dopamine brain cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which produces the chemical dopamine.

    Despite intense research efforts around the world, the molecular causes of Parkinson’s disease are still unclear. What doctors and scientists do know is that PD is caused by the progressive loss of dopamine brain cells (neurons) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which produces the chemical dopamine. As the cells die, less dopamine is produced and transported to the striatum, the area of the brain that co-ordinates movement

    The latest research suggests that dopamine, a neurotransmitter known to be important in the brain’s attending functions, is not responsible for ADHD. The cause appears to lie in the structure of the grey matter. ADHD sufferers have less of it than those without it.

    • Blakeacake,

      I’m not certain whether this was intended as a response to AAs request for a link providing long term benefit of Zyprexa or not, but you did not provide a link. And quite honestly, your comment doesn’t make any sense, since Zyprexa is a dopamine antagonist. So it really shouldn’t be used in the treatment of PD, if a person with PD becomes psychotic from the typical PD drugs, those drugs should be reduced.

      Plus, I’m quite certain there is no proof that those with ADHD have structural grey matter abnormalities within their brains, at least prior to being drugged. Plus, Zyprexa is not even approved for use in ADHD. Please do provide links to actual medical research, if you can prove I’m wrong.

  8. Btw, here’s a good article on FDA’s culpability:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/02/fda_inspections_fraud_fabrication_and_scientific_misconduct_are_hidden_from.single.html

    “For more than a decade, the FDA has shown a pattern of burying the details of misconduct. As a result, nobody ever finds out which data is bogus, which experiments are tainted, and which drugs might be on the market under false pretenses. The FDA has repeatedly hidden evidence of scientific fraud not just from the public, but also from its most trusted scientific advisers, even as they were deciding whether or not a new drug should be allowed on the market. Even a congressional panel investigating a case of fraud regarding a dangerous drug couldn’t get forthright answers. For an agency devoted to protecting the public from bogus medical science, the FDA seems to be spending an awful lot of effort protecting the perpetrators of bogus science from the public.”