CREDIT: RJ SANGOSTI
Antidepressants have been linked to 28 reports of murder and 32 cases of murderous thoughts, in cases referred to the UK medicines regulator over the past 30 years, a BBC investigation has discovered.
The pills, known as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)which includes common drugs like Prozac and Seroxat, are prescribed 40 million times each year in Britain.
But an Freedom of Information request for BBC Panorama discovered that the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency had received 60 reports of murders or murderous thoughts linked to the drugs in the past three decades.
Professor Peter Tyrer, a psychiatrist at Imperial College London, has been assessing the performance of SSRIs since they were first introduced in the 1980s.
Although the link between murders and antidepressants in cases referred to the MHRA do not mean the drugs caused the events, Prof Tyrer told programme-makers that the extreme side effects of the drugs should be investigated further.
“You can never be quite certain with a rare side-effect whether it’s linked to a drug or not because it could be related to other things,” he said.
“But it’s happened just too frequently with this class of drug to make it random. It’s obviously related to the drug but we don’t know exactly why.”
Antidepressants were prescribed 40 million times last year in Britain
The programme also looked into claims that the Batman movie killer James Holmes, who killed 12 people at a midnight premier cinema screening at Colorado in 2012, was taking the SSRIs sertraline at the time of the murders.
Analysing Holmes’ notebooks and psychiatric interviews with him carried out after the killings, the programme found that he appeared to lose his fear of consequences as the drugs removed his anxiety.
And as the dose of sertraline was increased, the programme shows his obsessive thoughts became psychotic.
UK-based psychiatrist Professor David Healy, who was an adviser to Holmes’s defence team and interviewed Holmes while he was awaiting trial, told Panorama: “I believe if he hadn’t taken the sertraline he wouldn’t have murdered anyone.”
However court psychiatrist Dr William Reid who also interviewed Holmes before the trial, told the programme makers that he thought the killings were a result of mental illness and “completely unrelated to the medication.”
CREDIT: INCAMERASTOCK / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Prosecuting Attorney George Brauchler told Panorama: “I don’t think the medications caused these shootings, I think this guy with his evil thoughts, having concluded that he had no other alternative future, with the mental illness, led to this, that’s what I think did it.”
The role of the drugs was not explored in court, and the defence team did not call on Professor Healy to give evidence.
Holmes was found guilty of all charges and is serving one of America’s longest ever prison sentences.
Professor Tyrer is calling on the courts to take into account the possible effects of SSRIs in cases where people taking the drugs commit violent crime:
“Although it makes the whole process a bit more complicated, I think that is going to become necessary in the future.”
Drugs manufacturer Pfizer who developed sertraline said a causal link between setraline and homicidal behaviour has not been established, and that the drug has helped millions of people.
Panorama: A Prescription for Murder? will be broadcast on BBC One on Wednesday July 26 at 8pm.