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Antidepressants can save lives but they made me want to kill. Now I wonder if some murderers may have suffered the same side-effects as me

After a difficult divorce, I was prescribed drugs to manage my mood. Instead, I became psychotic and dangerous – and terror attackers have taken similar medication

Katinka Blackford Newman
Monday 15 August 2016 15:32 BST
Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who crashed Germanwings flight 9525 into the Alps, was prescribed similar drugs to those which induced psychosis in Katinka Blackford Newman
Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who crashed Germanwings flight 9525 into the Alps, was prescribed similar drugs to those which induced psychosis in Katinka Blackford Newman (AFP)

Almost three years ago, I woke up and found myself in a mental hospital in West London. I looked down and saw wealds on my arms where I had torn my skin apart.

There was a mirror in the tiny room where I’d spent most of the last four weeks undergoing an agonising cold turkey withdrawal from five antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs. I stood on the metal bed and struggled to recognize my body beneath the blue hospital gown. I used to be a keep fit fanatic, my body reasonably lithe and toned. Now I was three stone heavier – but that was the very least of my problems.

I had a vague recollection of the last year. It had started when I had hit a wall of despair while going through a divorce. Sleepless nights took me to a psychiatrist, who prescribed escitalopram, a common antidepressant. Within hours I was hallucinating, believed I had attacked my children, and stabbing myself with a knife, an event which I still have no recollection of.

I ended up in a private hospital where doctors clearly thought I had a screw loose when I told them I was being filmed and that I had a suicide pact with God. My psychosis ended when I said I wanted to stop taking the antidepressant, but doctors insisted I take more pills to treat stabilise my mental health. This began a terrible decline during I couldn’t leave the house, dress myself, finish a sentence. Worst of all, I couldn’t feel love for my children, Lily and Oscar, aged 10 and 11 at the time.

It was pure luck that I got better. At the end of a year, my private insurance ran out and I ended up sectioned at an NHS hospital. They made a decision that, without doubt, saved my life. I was taken off all five drugs. I was climbing the walls, screaming, shouting, and begging my family to get me out of there.

But then, one day, I woke up and I was fine. And that was where I found myself a few days before my 48th birthday in October 2013.

My kids by then had become scared of the monster I had become and were living with my estranged husband. I had lost almost everything but, that day, I had the most important thing back: me.

I needed to unravel what had happened. Before I became unwell I had been a television documentary director. Now, even though I was still incarcerated, I had a laptop a mobile phone and, most importantly, I had my mind back. It didn’t take me long to discover that, for a significant number of people, antidepressants have some bad side effects: hallucinations, psychosis, hostility, increased depression, and suicidal ideation – all the things I’d been suffering for a year.

Could it possibly be the case that I had never been depressed at all? That everything I’d been suffering from in the last year was side effects of the drugs the doctors I’d insisted I take?

I went on to discover that billions of dollars have been paid out by drug companies to victims and that courts around the world have ruled that people have killed as a direct result of these drugs. Just two years after Prozac came onto the market, a 48-year-old man, Joseph Wesbecker, went into his workplace with a gun, killing eight and injuring 12 before killing himself.

The drug company, Eli Lilly, paid vast amounts of money to the families of victims on condition they keep quiet. A few years later there were 170 claims against Eli Lilly from people who claimed similar instances of violence and suicide.

I began writing a book, for which I interviewed people who had no history of mental illness yet suddenly became delusional or psychotic after taking antidepressants and went on to kill those closest to them.

There was a man from Canada, who, two weeks after taking Seroxat, became convinced he had to kill his 11-year-old son because he was in a better place. He meticulously planned an event where he took his son up to their holiday home, strangled him and then rang the police to announce he had done the right thing.

There was an American banker, who, 48 hours after taking Prozac, became convinced the lawn sprinklers were telling him to kill his 8-year-old twin daughters, who he then stabbed to death. And there were people who woke up in a police cell to be told they had committed armed robberies and killings but could remember nothing about these incidents at all.

In all of these cases, the perpetrator showed absolutely no remorse until they came off the drugs. Emotional blunting is another side effect of these drugs.

On 13 March 2016, French investigators released a report on the case of Andreas Lubitz, the German wings pilot who locked himself into the cockpit of a plane and crashed the plane carrying 150 people into the Alps. When I opened it I felt sick; just nine days before the accident, he was put on exactly the same antidepressant medication that I had been on when I became psychotic and nearly killed my kids. It was clearly stated in the toxicology report – citalopram, mirtazapine and zopiclone sleeping tablets.

German Wings Airbus A320 crashes over French Alps

There were other signs in that this man was suffering severe drug toxicity. The report said he had complained of visual problems and, like me, he had been unable to sleep. This is far more serious than it sounds.

Every sufferer of antidepressant psychosis that I’ve interviewed has had an agonizing condition called akathisia. It means you literally cannot sit still, and it is accompanied by an excruciating inner anxiety, leading to some sufferers ending their lives to escape the agony. In one case, Sandra Sorg, a nurse from Wisconsin, suffered it so badly that she asked to be put in a straitjacket. Eventually she hanged herself with a sheet.

When I went into antidepressant-induced toxicity, I remember how I suffered this condition and how it led to two sleepless nights when I paced my house like a deranged animal. This was the precursor to my mind being tipped into full blown psychosis.

So, while the press reported that Lubitz was depressed, I had a unique insight into extent of insanity this cocktail of drugs could potentially cause. The official report into the accident even concluded that “according to valid aero-medical regulations he had already been unfit to fly due to use of an antidepressant and massive sleep deprivation”.

Professor David Healy, an expert in the drugs, he told me the chances of Lubitz becoming psychotic from depression were 1 in 20,000 and the chances of him becoming psychotic from antidepressant medication were 1 in 200.

In the last month there have been three events that have chilled me. Ali David Sonboly, the 18-year-old student in Munich who went on a rampage shooting 10 and injuring 27 before turning the gun on him was not a terrorist. He was not known to the police and didn’t have a criminal record. Later a police spokesman confirmed: “The suspect spent two months having inpatient psychiatric treatment last year. After leaving hospital he continued to receive outpatient treatment for social anxiety disorder and depression for which he was receiving medication.”

Eight days earlier, 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Boulel, drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 84 people and injuring more than 300 before being shot dead by police officers. His father said he had no links to religion but described his son as “always alone, always depressed”, adding that Mohamed had previously been to see a doctor, who prescribed medication to counter his depression”.

When I tell my story, people tell me cases like mine are very rare. But violence and hallucinations are listed as a side effect on one well-known antidepressant for 1 per cent of users. With 5 million in the UK on antidepressants and over 100 million worldwide taking them, a small percentage is a very large number.

From 2004 to 2011, there were 10,000 reports to the FDA of psychiatric drug side effects linked to violence including 300 homicides. These include every one of the SSRI antidepressants, which are dished out liberally to people like me who are going through difficult life events and sufferers of social. And the FDA admits that only 1 to 10 per cent of adverse events are reported.

When people have react badly to antidepressants they are at risk not just to themselves to others. Delusions can last a long time and can involve the perpetrator planning a killing or act of violence, and then typically planning to end their own life. The patient can be functioning at a very high level, but with totally deluded ideas – which stop immediately if they are lucky enough to survive and come off the medication.

I would not have believed this had it not happened to me. When I was psychotic, within hours of taking that first drug, I was capable of anything. In fact, I thought I was in a dream or a video game. It was pure luck I didn’t kill myself or my kids, or both. If I had access to a gun or a plane, a truck, or a knife who knows what could have happened.

When crimes like these recent terror attacks shake the world, the first question we should be asking is whether it was induced by the side effects of potentially dangerous antidepressant medication.

Katinka Blackford Newman is the author of 'The Pill That Steals Lives: One woman's terrifying journey to discover the truth about antidepressants'

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