This week on the Mad in America podcast, we hear from drug safety advocate David Carmichael. David has personal knowledge of the effects of psychiatric drugs, having experienced a family tragedy in 2004. David now uses his knowledge and experience to help people make informed choices about prescription drug use.
In November 2023, he will embark on a tour of 15 U.S. cities, aiming to educate and inform about the possible risks of antidepressant treatment. In this interview, we talk about David’s experiences, his upcoming antidepressant safety tour, and the importance of fully informed consent at the time of prescribing.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
James Moore: David, welcome, thank you so much for joining me today for the Mad in America Podcast. I’m grateful to you for finding the time to share your experiences with us.
David Carmichael: Well, I really appreciate the opportunity, James.
Moore: You are a drug safety advocate and you became one because of a tragedy that befell your family in 2004. So I wondered if you could share a little bit about your experiences.
Carmichael: Well, in 2003, I was dealing with cash flow issues, like so many people are today because of the fallout from the COVID pandemic, and I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. I was very quickly prescribed the SSRI antidepressant Paxil, known as Seroxat in the U.K., because I was told I had this chemical imbalance in my brain.
So I was on Paxil for eight months. I was able to pick up some contract work and things were getting a little bit more stable. But I had a couple of side effects that I didn’t like; sexual dysfunction was one of them and I was sweating at night. So I tried to find out what I could about how you get off these drugs but there’s really nothing out there.
I was told to slow taper, so I tapered off over several weeks and I was doing pretty well. But I still had a lot of contract work to do and for the first time, it made me I think a little bit manic. I had a lot of energy, I didn’t have to sleep much so I became sleep deprived, and after four months of being off the drug, I again went through what I call a nervous breakdown. That’s what they might have called it many years ago.
But I just wasn’t sleeping at night, I was feeling anxious and I was shaking just a little bit. I had a full prescription previously, so I put myself back on the drug. I told my doctor, but I knew he wasn’t going to prescribe it again. So I just put myself back on 40 milligrams. As soon as I did, I started to have suicidal thoughts. When I had these thoughts, I thought, oh my goodness, I’m glad I got myself back on Paxil just in time. And none of the warnings were out back in 2004, not to the public.
I was having these suicidal thoughts with suicidal planning, so I actually increased my own dosage. I knew that 60 milligrams was the maximum level that you could take because my doctor had told me it was all right. When I did, I became increasingly psychotic with delusions thinking my son, who had mild epilepsy, had permanent brain damage. I thought he was going to kill my daughter and my wife was going to have a breakdown. Over two weeks these delusions started to increase in strength, but they were really fixed false beliefs.
My wife thought I was getting better. I had become calmer and I planned first a murder-suicide at our family cottage. I was going to drown both Ian and me because I was still suicidal and I thought I was protecting Ian from a living hell. So I thought that was the best thing for both of us. We had a boat and we had an anchor on it. I was going to tie the anchor to us and drown us both. But I forgot my bathing suit and that was a sign from God. I’m not a churchgoer, but I became quite spiritual at this point, thinking that I wasn’t supposed to die.
Over the course of a week, I planned a father-son outing to a BMX park just outside of Toronto, Canada and I figured out what would be the best way to take Ian’s life. So on the Tuesday before the weekend, I went to Shoppers Drug Mart and bought sleeping medication. I poured it all into a vial and I took that with me.
So we planned this trip and went away. He was excited and we had a wonderful suite in a hotel. To me, it was supposed to be almost a celebration of his death, in my bizarre state. A forensic psychiatrist has told me that a delusion is a fixed false belief. You take an issue and you blow it out of proportion 30 times and then you act on it, which is what I was doing.
So we had his favorite food for dinner and we watched his favorite movie. Around 8 pm, I poured all the sleeping medication into a glass of orange juice. He drank it, but it didn’t put him to sleep, it made him hallucinate.
So we were bouncing around the room until around 3 am, when I thought, you know, I’ve got to take his life. So I strangled him. Then I sat for six hours, with his body on the bed, I put his hands across his chest, kissed him on the lips and told him, “I love you, I’m really going to miss you, but you’re in a better place now.” And I waited until 9 am to call 911 because I didn’t want to disturb the other guests in the hotel. Then I was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Moore: Thank you for sharing that. I just can’t imagine what it’s like for a person who has been a loving parent to suddenly become under the sway of a drug-induced psychosis, kill their child and then have to come to terms with what happened.
You were found not criminally responsible for Ian’s death in 2005 and then you were treated in a Canadian mental health facility. Is that right?
Carmichael: I was found not criminally responsible, and it was a joint resolution between what we call in Canada the Crown Attorney, which is the prosecutor, and my criminal defense lawyer.
There was no question that I was psychotic. Both of the experts, including a forensic psychiatrist, agreed that I was psychotic. They diagnosed me as having major depression with psychotic episodes. What wasn’t brought into the case was the fact that I was on Paxil at the time.
So I was found what most people would understand as insane. In Canada, we call it “not criminally responsible.” Then I went to a mental health center in Brockville, Ontario and I had to sort of work my way out of that system. So I was an inpatient for a while. Then I became an outpatient, and I was fully discharged in 2009. So within four years, I was out of the system with no criminal record, which allows me to travel. Within three years, I was living with my family again.
I feel very fortunate that this happened in Canada and I feel incredibly fortunate that I had a couple of great friends, including a psychiatrist to diagnose me and who understood this. So I feel quite fortunate to be able to advocate for drug safety.
Moore: When you were in the mental health facility, were you forcibly medicated there or did they try and put you back on antidepressants? How did they treat you regarding the drugs once you were in a facility?
Carmichael: I wasn’t forcibly medicated, but I was compliant. I was put on Effexor before my criminal trial, which lasted three days. So when I went to Brockville Mental Health Centre, I was already on Effexor, which is an SNRI, not an SSRI. It had very similar side effects when I started it. I pretty quickly recognized that probably the best way for me to get out of the system was to be compliant even though I knew these drugs didn’t work well with me.
So I put on a lot of weight with Effexor and I was on it for five and a half years. Then in 2010, I sort of slowly weaned off with support from Yolanda Lucire, who is an Australian forensic psychiatrist and an expert in metabolism and DNA. So I’ve been off of all psychiatric drugs since 2010.
Moore: Given these awful experiences, I have to ask, have you been able to forgive yourself? How has your family come to terms with this and how have you approached trying to find some peace after that tragedy?
Carmichael: Great questions. Let’s start with my family. My daughter, without me asking, has been on a couple of major broadcasts with me. We were on the Dr. Oz show together, two episodes of A Current Affairs show in Canada called CTV-WFIVE, and in a BBC panorama film.
The reason she stood right beside me from the beginning is because she knew who I was. I only had one bad year in my life and even when I was on Paxil for the first time in eight months, I was abrupt. It wasn’t necessarily a full-blown, homicidal psychotic episode, but I was abrupt. I wasn’t physically violent, but certainly probably verbally and my daughter noticed that and my wife noticed that. So they both forgave me and encouraged me to forgive myself, but that’s much harder.
First of all, the way that I’ve done this is that you have to do enough research and talk to enough people, including David Healy and Robert Whitaker, to really believe it was the drug. That’s the first thing. I broke my silence when I was still a forensic inpatient and my treating psychiatrist supported that. I had to convince myself and believe that it was the drug that caused the psychosis because I was getting this question, “Oh, it’s easier to blame the drug than yourself.” I got that in almost every interview, once I broke my silence.
The second was that I had to find a purpose and it’s a lifelong purpose. You know, it changes and it might continue to change but I’ll always be a drug safety advocate. My interest is in the antidepressant area, but also with all drugs. In 2012, I set up a campaign, which is called “Know Your Drugs” and KnowYourDrugs.org is the website. I started to work on it back in 2012 but I didn’t launch the website until 2015.
Moore: I’d like to talk about your drug safety advocate work now. In November 2023, you are embarking on a tour to 15 U.S. cities to raise awareness of the risks of SSRIs and other antidepressants and to help people make informed choices about their use.
Can you tell us a little bit about the tour, what form it will take, how people can find out if you’re coming to a place near them and how they can attend?
Carmichael: The reason I’m touring and looking generally at prescription drug safety is that in 2018, I was on a mental health and crisis lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand. There were several medical researchers involved and it was organized by a woman who lost her son to SSRI-induced suicide, Maria Bradshaw is her name. Peter Gøtzsche was there and Robert Whitaker. We went to New Zealand and Live Talk Radio only wanted me, they didn’t want the medical researchers, they just wanted the “true crime, killer dad” story.
So I went on to a live radio show and I was introduced as the killer dad. The first question was, “How does it feel to kill your own child?” and I wasn’t expecting that. But I’m getting more used to dealing with those difficult types of openings. When I came back from Australia and New Zealand, I said, you know, to get the mainstream media interested, what they want are the stories.
Fortunately, I’ve got great access to some tremendous medical researchers, because I need the theory behind it, but I need to put it in plain language. I was able to engage the mainstream media, even with the cross-Canada tour in 2022. There were nine cities and it didn’t have a lot of people that came to the actual events. But there were two current affairs shows, one in Canada and an Australian show. Between them, they reach a few million people.
That’s my interest, trying to reach a broader public. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the U.S. because the pharmaceutical industry with direct-to-consumer advertising has an incredible influence on the major networks, but I have got to give it a go.
Moore: In terms of finding out more about the tour, I guess that people could visit your website, which is KnowYourDrugs.org. Is that right?
Carmichael: Yes, that’s right. It’s the tour page. And in the actual tour the focus is going to be on antidepressants.
Moore: Thank you, David. I think it’s incredibly important to give people the information they need about some pretty horrific potential consequences of taking antidepressant drugs.
As you said, yourself, the research says one thing, but there isn’t anything like hearing personal experience when it comes to really making people understand this is quite a big choice in life, isn’t it?
Carmichael: Well, I think it is. My experience is rare but it happens and there are a lot more common experiences. When I was in New Zealand on the live radio show, I talked about sexual dysfunction issues. There was a woman that was listening and she came to the session that evening irate. She had no idea that sexual dysfunction was a side effect of SSRIs. She basically claimed that it destroyed her marriage. Now, I didn’t talk to her afterwards. I’d like to have heard more about her story, but there are a lot of people that have had their relationships probably maybe not destroyed, but certainly affected by sexual dysfunction issues.
You’ve also got the issues of emotional blunting, or that you don’t feel anything positive or negative, and there’s no way that doesn’t affect your life. I mean, it may prevent some worries, but there are other implications. So it goes well beyond these extreme stories of how SSRIs can cause suicide or violence or homicides or the connection to mass shootings.
So I hope that it does engage the broader public because there are a lot of people on antidepressants.
Moore: Thank you, David. You mentioned there that your case is rare, but it’s not the only case of this kind of event happening within a family and I wondered if it’s okay if we could talk a little bit about the case of Lindsay Clancy.
Some listeners might already know, but Lindsay is a 32-year-old mother from Boston, who became anxious about returning to work as a labor delivery nurse after her maternity leave. In October 2022, she decided to meet with a psychiatrist and then in January 2023, after being prescribed 13 different drugs in the previous four months including two SSRIs, she tragically took the lives of her three young children during a psychotic episode and then attempted suicide herself.
This is another heartbreaking tragedy and the legal case is in progress. The prosecution is claiming that this was an act of premeditated murder and the defense is making the argument that Lindsay was mentally unwell at that time. So, given your experiences, David, I wondered what your thoughts were about this tragic event.
Carmichael: Well, I probably can relate to that story as much as any story. She was on two different SSRIs of the 13 drugs, Prozac and Zoloft. I don’t know whether she had just started, increased the dosage, or was coming off; it’s very hard to know the details. I think what’s really interesting in this story is that the prosecutor said she couldn’t have planned this if she was psychotic and the argument was that it was planned. I’m not going to comment on that, it’s before the courts. You can absolutely plan and be psychotic, especially on an SSRI-induced psychotic episode.
So that’s really what prompted my interest in this whole story, it is an incredible tragedy. In her background, there was no history. She was a labor delivery nurse in a hospital, she was home and people started comparing it with postpartum depression. I think it was past that stage based on my understanding. She was anxious about returning to work after maternity leave. She had three young children, a five and a three-year-old and an eight-month-old so that’s understandable. Then suddenly, she went to her first psychiatrist, and four months later, she had been on 13 drugs. So it’s a case that I think everybody should be watching closely. I certainly am.
Moore: These events are not easy things to talk about, or to hear and understand. But it’s so important that we do understand the full gamut of people’s different reactions to SSRIs and antidepressants.
Carmichael: My real interest is not just the case but I hope that somehow that it can help Lindsay forgive herself, which to me, is the most difficult thing. There was a GoFundMe campaign to raise money and part of that was her husband talking out about forgiving Lindsay. Her challenge will be forgiving herself. One thing that kept me alive and going was my daughter, Gillian. I had my daughter to live for. So it’s going to be very difficult. The purpose is critical, but she has to definitely believe it was the drugs.
Those are the two key components in me forgiving myself. It doesn’t apply to everybody, of course. But those two are important to me. And I hope regardless of what happens in terms of the outcome of her trial, I hope she can find it deep within herself to forgive herself. It’s just a tragic case and one that I really heartfelt. It was very difficult for me to read the details because there are so many similarities between her tragedy and my own.
Moore: Thank you, David. In 2018, you wrote a piece for Mad in America, and you described the tragedy that your family suffered while you were experiencing drug-induced psychosis. You also talked about this as a possible risk factor in mass shootings. So I wonder if we could talk about that a little bit.
Carmichael: One of the critical things for me, when I connected the mass shootings is the calm, organized behavior. At the end of the day, it’s people that pull the trigger, so what’s actually going on with them? No one is looking at that. And even if there’s an SSRI or another antidepressant or psychiatric drug involved, you don’t hear about it.
We can speculate, and there are many cases where we have found out and there are many cases where we have no idea. But it’s their calm, organized planning that is very similar to my case. In the last week, I got the sleeping medication, I planned the trip, and no one could even tell that anything was wrong with me. I had a business meeting in the middle of the week. I was directing a children’s summer camp in Toronto and I was there on the Friday morning and drove off with Ian on the Friday afternoon.
I think a lot of the people who look at these mass shooters, they can’t tell if anything is wrong with them because they seem to be very normal. And to me, they become normal as they become more delusional and more psychotic. Someone needs to be able to recognize what I would call their false belief and work with it.
It doesn’t mean telling them they are wrong because that doesn’t work. I absolutely thought I had to take Ian’s life and I was prepared to sacrifice my own by spending 25 years in prison. I didn’t need a lawyer, I didn’t want a lawyer. I just said, “I just want to start my prison sentence.” That’s all that I wanted to do at that time because I thought the sacrifice was so important.
So we don’t really know what’s going through the minds of a lot of these shooters. And it’s important to intervene. If you see any type of odd behavior, ask them questions. You believe this so you’ll talk about it. I would have but nobody asked me anything, and it wasn’t that I was going to share. I just didn’t feel that I had to. I thought I was going to do the whole family a favor.
Moore: When there are reports of mass shootings, typically, the news reports will say they were suffering from anxiety or depression but it’s just as important to understand, whether they have started, stopped, or changed dosage of medications in the period leading up to the tragedy.
Carmichael: If it’s a suicide, there should be mandatory toxicology testing and the results should be released publicly without someone having to go through a Freedom of Information request. I believe that information is important to share.
Moore: So for people listening to this conversation, what’s the most important thing to know about antidepressant drugs?
Carmichael: The reason I set up KnowYourDrugs.org is that I think people have to be able to make informed choices in terms of prescription drug use. A lot of doctors aren’t aware of all the side effects because the pharmaceutical companies have concealed them to get approval. And then I think we have to make sure, focusing on antidepressants, that users are closely monitored. That people around you know what the side effects may be, people around you recognize what akathisia is, they don’t think your condition is getting worse, they recognize that might be a side effect, which to me is a very good indicator to get off that drug right away.
That’s the most important part, making an informed choice, and doctors have to work with you on this. They have to make sure that you understand potential side effects. And then it’s very important for people to monitor you anytime you’re starting a drug or changing dosage, and during withdrawal. So the message is actually fairly simple. It’s just something we haven’t done in the past in most cases.
To me, you know, part of me forgiving myself was my purpose and that’s why I’ve been a drug safety advocate since 2006. I hope that this antidepressant safety tour engages the public. We have to engage the public before they get harmed and that’s not happening. I’m really hoping I can help prevent people from being harmed or harming others. And that’s really why I’m doing it and hoping I can engage the mainstream media. We’ll find out starting in November of this year.
Moore: David, I can’t thank you enough for coming on and talking about such difficult experiences. Nobody could blame you or your family for wanting to hide away and not ever speak about this again. But I think it’s incredibly courageous to be front and center out there talking about this to people being interviewed on television, being interviewed on podcasts, and educating others because we can’t rely on the official information about this, can we? Because we know that the evidence of harm is held back and people aren’t given the full facts. I really admire your courage in being willing to talk about these things.
Carmichael: Well, I appreciate that. It gets difficult sometimes. Anyway, James, thank you.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from The Thomas Jobe Fund.