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The McClatchy Co.

Local News Thursday, February 19, 2004

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Speak Out!
Pittman tragedy detailed in letter
Anti-depressant dosage increased days before killings

By Jason Cato The Herald
(Published February 3 2004)

BETHESDA, Md. -- Joe D. Pittman stood and faced the nearly three dozen panelists, his hands trembling as he prepared to read his son's letter to the Food and Drug Administration.

"My son at the tender age of 12 killed my parents," Pittman said, his words quashing any noise in the room, before reading the letter.

"Dear FDA, My name is Chris Pittman. I am now 14 years old. I would like to tell you what happened to me, what the medication did to me, and how I felt when I was taking Zoloft," Pittman read. "Because of this medication, I took the lives of two people that I loved more than anything, my grandparents."

Hundreds of people attended the FDA advisory panel hearing Monday, many there to tell gut wrenching stories similar to the Pittmans'. The advisory panel is helping the FDA determine the best way to investigate whether anti-depressants classified as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, cause an increased risk of suicide in some children. Many claim the same mechanism that can drive some children to harm themselves can also drive them to harm others.

The bodies of Joe Frank Pittman and Joy Roberts Pittman were found in the ruins of their burned Chester County home on Nov. 29, 2001. Christopher was charged with double murder and arson. His trial may begin in April, where he will be tried as an adult. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Along with describing how the medicine affected him, Christopher's letter also described how his dosage was dramatically increased days prior to the killings. He wrote, "I went to the doctor and he gave me a sample pack of Zoloft. He told me to take 50 mgs once in the morning and once at night. ... A week after my doctor gave me a sample pack, I went back and he gave me two packs, and he told me to take a 100 mgs once in the morning and once at night."

Those revelations shocked many in attendance. As his maternal grandmother, Del Duprey, said moments before when addressing the advisory panel, "Within 48 hours, his grandparents were dead ..."

Christopher's tragic story wasn't alone Monday, as dozens of families related nightmares they believe were brought on by intense adverse effects to anti-depressants. Included in those were:

A 13-year-old boy hung himself in his closet on his seventh day of taking Zoloft;

A teen held 23 classmates and a teacher hostage with a high-powered rifle within days of a dosage increase while on Effexor;

A recent Stanford graduate stabbed herself in the chest twice with a butcher's knife, dying on her parents' kitchen floor after being on Paxil for two weeks;

A boy on Prozac hung himself with his belt from a rafter, leaving behind a letter pinned to his clothing thanking his parents for 14 wonderful years of life;

In line with the countless other horror stories was one of a 12-year-old girl who hung herself with her shoelaces in a middle school bathroom three months after being on Paxil and Zoloft.

"We were told that anti-depressants like Paxil and Zoloft were wonder drugs, that they were safe and effective for children," said the girl's father, Glenn McIntosh. "We were lied to."

Neither Paxil nor Zoloft have been approved to treat depression in children. Out of the entire SSRI category, only Prozac has been approved for such. SSRIs work by blocking the absorption of serotonin, a mood-altering chemical, once it is naturally released into the brain.

"Why do we believe street drugs like heroin or LSD can lead to outcomes such as this, yet won't accept that legal drugs working on the same neurochemicals can result in horrific crimes against persons and property?" asked Dawn Rider, who lost her son to suicide while he was on SSRIs and now heads ASPIRE, an advocacy group. "Why do we accept a drug like penicillin, as beneficial as it is for some, can prove fatal for others? These drugs are not safe for everyone."

The issue of whether SSRIs can lead to an increased risk of suicide in some juvenile patients first arose in the United Kingdom last year. The U.K. equivalent of the FDA in December all but banned doctors there from prescribing SSRIs to children, with Prozac being the lone exception.

The FDA has taken no such action. In June, it warned that a SSRI/suicide link may exist and announced it was launching an investigation into the entire category. The agency also requested that all SSRI makers submit data showing the results of any trials involving children.

Dr. Richard Brook, a member of the U.K. expert panel that moved to restrict the use of SSRIs in children, attended Monday's hearing but did not participate. At a separate press conference, where a group of scientists presented data they felt proved such a link already exists, Brook urged the FDA to follow his group's lead.

"What's good enough for British children ought to be good enough for American children as well," Brook said.

The FDA now has some 15 studies to examine, 12 of which show the drugs have no effect on treating depression in children. These cases will now be dissected to examine the possible suicide link.

"It is absolutely critical, in our view, that we make every effort to provide the best answer possible to this question." said Dr. Russell Katz, head of the FDA's neurologic drugs. "The wrong answer in either direction ... could have profound negative consequences for the public's health."

Critics, however, claim it will be impossible to get that answer from this pool of data, since these studies were not conducted in the best way to uncover any link between SSRIs and suicide or violent behavior. Some claimed the doctors who performed the studies using drug company money were inclined to provide as favorable results as possible.

Dr. Lawrence Diller of the University of California at San Francisco blasted such scientists.

"Unfortunately in my quarter century of practice, I've seen a child psychiatry biological revolution hijacked by a for-profit drug industry," Diller told the panel. "... At this time, the conflict of interest between my academic colleagues and the drug industry rivals that of the stock analysts and the brokerage firms."

Not all of the 60-plus people who addressed the advisory panel expressed anti-SSRI views.

Of those who offered praise, most shared the sentiments of Sherri Walton with the Mental Health Association of Arizona, who claimed SSRI medications saved her daughter Jordan's life.

She urged the FDA not to restrict the drugs, but to find the problems and to fix them.

"We have the greatest sympathy for any family who has lost children to suicide. I ask that you identify and fix any breakdown in the system that can lead to such tragedy," Walton said. "At the same time, I ask that you appreciate and take into account the enormous benefits that these medications have had for children and their families."

The FDA hopes to complete its investigation and have an answer for the public by late summer.

Contact Jason Cato at 329-4071 or


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