Human rights group calls on the Veterans Administration to add website warnings about the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions from antidepressants.
Of the 46,510 American adults who committed suicide in 2018, one in seven was a U.S. military veteran, according to the 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The 6,415 veteran suicides in 2018 averaged 17.6 per day.
The upswing in veteran and active military suicides has long been associated with skyrocketing prescriptions for mind-altering drugs. Between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense increased the number of military prescriptions for psychoactive drugs, including antidepressants, antipsychotics and mood stabilizers, by nearly 700% – more than 30 times faster than the civilian rate.
By 2013, one in six American service members was on at least one psychiatric drug, the Military Times reported.
In 2014, with more than 60% of suicides in the military committed by those on antidepressants or recently undergoing outpatient psychiatric care, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) produced its acclaimed documentary, “Hidden Enemy: Inside Psychiatry’s Covert Agenda,” which linked the soaring prescription and suicide rates.
Colonel Bart Billings is a retired military psychologist with 34 years of military service, who founded the International Combat Stress Conference, the longest running conference on combat stress in the world. Col. Billings has stated that in all his years of practice with military and veterans diagnosed with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” he never once had to prescribe a mind-altering psychiatric drug.
“In any other organization, if you constantly fail you get fired. Why has not psychiatry in the military been relieved of their duties?”
-Col. Bart Billings, retired military psychologist with 34 years of service
In a 2014 interview, he explains that 99% of those who go into combat experience “post-traumatic stress, a normal reaction to being in an abnormal environment.” He goes on to say, “If you give them time to normalize themselves…, then the post-traumatic stress dissipates, and they get back to living their normal lives.”
“I explain to the psychiatrists and psychologists,” he continues, “that you really shouldn’t be medicating them because they have a normal brain, and once you medicate [them], what happens is it’s much, much harder to work with them because now you’re working with someone whose brain functioning is chemically, physiologically changed by the medications.”
Because military psychiatrists have consistently failed to prevent military and veteran suicides, Col. Billings says, “In any other organization, …if you constantly fail, …you get fired,” and he asks, “Why has not psychiatry in the military been relieved of their duties?”
Despite all the mounting evidence of antidepressants increasing the risk of suicide, the VA’s National Center for PTSD website still promotes antidepressants as a recommended treatment for “PTSD.”
The VA’s website is an example of what one study found was widespread information about antidepressants on medical websites. The study, published in the International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine in 2020, looked at 39 websites in 10 countries that provided information on antidepressants.
The researchers’ conclusion: “The information was generally inaccurate and unhelpful and has potential to lead to inappropriate use and overuse of antidepressants and reduce the likelihood that people will seek better options for depression like psychotherapy.” They noted that only two of the 39 websites warned that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide in people of all ages.
The likely overprescribing of antidepressants to veterans is indicated in recent figures provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). In response to a recent FOIA request by CCHR, the VHA revealed that in 2019, 4.2 million of the 9 million U.S. veterans enrolled with the VHA for health care services were prescribed psychotropic drugs, with 41% (1.75 million) of them prescribed antidepressants.
When the FDA suspected in 2004 that antidepressants could be linked to suicidal thoughts and actions, based on evidence it had reviewed, it asked drug manufacturers of 10 widely used antidepressants to add warnings that patients prescribed the drugs should be monitored for worsening depression and suicidal thoughts and actions, especially when starting or discontinuing the drugs.
Later that year, the FDA ordered that antidepressant labels carry a black box warning concerning the increased risk of suicidal thinking and actions in children and teens, a warning that was officially extended in 2007 to include young adults aged 18 to 24. A black box warning is designed to call attention to serious or life-threatening risks.
Though the FDA has not yet extended the black box warning to all age groups, studies support the view that it should. In a landmark 2016 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, a team of researchers at the Nordic Cochrane Centre reviewed clinical trials in which healthy adults with no history of depression or other mental disorders were given antidepressants. The researchers concluded that “antidepressants double the occurrence of events in adult healthy volunteers that can lead to suicide and violence.”
They further calculated that one of every 16 mentally healthy adults taking antidepressants experienced harm related to suicide or violence. Consider, then, how antidepressants could affect those already struggling with depression, traumatic stress or other mental health issues.
“While it is now generally accepted that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide and violence in children and adolescents (although many psychiatrists still deny this), most people believe that these drugs are not dangerous for adults,” these researchers wrote. “This is a potentially lethal misconception.”
What’s more, a 2018 study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that taking antidepressants led to worse depression symptoms years later. Subjects in the study were assessed for depression symptoms over a 30-year period. The researchers, led by Michael P. Hengartner, Ph.D., found that those who used antidepressants at any time during the study had an 81% greater chance of having more severe depression symptoms at the end of the study.
The increased risks of depression and suicidal thoughts and actions from antidepressants warrant mention on the VA webpage that recommends these drugs. Veterans have a right to the full disclosure of the risks of the drugs recommended to them. Without this vital information, veterans cannot make fully informed decisions about whether to take or stop using antidepressants.
CCHR has long recommended that individuals experiencing depression should ask their physician for a complete physical examination with lab tests to discover any underlying physical conditions that could be causing the mental symptoms that would otherwise be misdiagnosed as mental disorders. Many prescription drugs, including antidepressants, are known causes of depression, and a physician should re-evaluate whether to continue prescribing the drugs.
WARNING: Anyone wishing to discontinue or change the dose of an antidepressant is cautioned to do so only under the supervision of a physician because of potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.