Bioethics Blogs

Teen Suicide Attempts Rise as Warning Cuts Medicine Use

[Bloomberg] A widely publicized warning by U.S. regulators a decade ago about risks for teenagers taking antidepressants led to plummeting prescriptions and increased suicide attempts, Harvard University researchers said.

As the public took the Food and Drug Administration’s 2004 warning to heart, adolescent attempted suicides increased 21.7 percent and a 31 percent decline in antidepressant use was seen two years later, according to research published in BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal. Attempted suicides among those ages 18 to 29 increased 33.7 percent.

The effect of a regulatory warning that gained wide attention in the media shows the need for better communication by public health professionals, said Christine Lu, the study’s lead author. The drop in antidepressant prescriptions among adolescents and young adults probably means depression went untreated, she said.

“After the widely publicized warnings we saw a substantial reduction in antidepressant use in all age groups,” said Lu, an instructor in population medicine at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, in a telephone interview. “Warnings, especially widely publicized warnings, may have unintended consequences.”

After a review of clinical trial data in 2003, the FDA required drugmakers to add a “black box” warning, the agency’s strictest alert, about risks of suicidal thoughts or actions among children and adolescents taking the antidepressants.

The assertion of a direct link between the FDA warning and increased psychotropic drug poisonings doesn’t convince Marc Stone, a senior medical reviewer at the FDA, who spoke on his own behalf.

No Connection

“It’s a stretch to say that the people that are committing suicide or the increase in suicide attempts has to do with the prescription of antidepressants,” Stone said in a telephone interview.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.