Following the death of Robin Williams last week, two of his friends (Marlon Wayans and Rob Schneider) have publicly blamed his suicide on the prescription drugs he was taking. Normally when medication is blamed for suicide, usually SSRIs, academics will blame the disease, saying it’s the actual depression that causes suicide, not the drug.
One prime example was during a debate with Dr David Healy, where Veronica O’Keane from Trinity College Dublin defended SSRIs, stating “It’s very important that the public are aware, that the problem here is not antidepressants, the problem here is depression. Depression is the real killer.” In another article Professor O’Keane has said that the SSRI Prozac is “one of the few major breakthroughs in the treatment of psychiatric illness in the past 40 years”. She declared a conflict of interest here – with Eli Lilly (the inventor of Prozac).
Professor O’Keane is not alone in her opinion that ‘it’s the disease, not the drugs’. For example: following the death of my son ‘The College of Psychiatry of Ireland’ collectively stated “Anecdotal cases of suicide sometimes mistakenly attribute these tragic events to the treatment rather than the illness itself” here. An ‘internal’ College email regarding this statement entitled ‘The Shane Clancy Affair’ was then inexplicably forwarded to the implicated drug company, Lundbeck pharmaceuticals. It seems the pharmaceutical industry are never far away once prescription drugs are in the dock. So it came as no surprise, following prescription drugs being implicated for Robin Williams’ death, to see a BBC article entitled ‘Depression more common in early Parkinson’s’. The article once again blamed the illness, not the drugs.
Professor David Burn from the University of Newcastle, said depression can be an early sign of Parkinson’s. He said ‘It is well-recognised that people do get depression and anxiety up to 10 years before they develop Parkinson’s disease’ and further that ‘the disease actually starts in the brain, affecting certain chemicals’. In 2008 Professor Burn co-authored a parkinson’s disease study which proclaimed that Rasagiline (aka Azilect) slowed the progression of Parkinson’s disease. He described the results as ‘exciting’ here. The U.S. medicines regulator (FDA) were not so ‘excited’ it seems and in 2011 voted 17-0 against approving Azilect for that use, saying the study results were not convincing.
Lundbeck and Teva Pharmaceuticals hold joint marketing rights for Azilect. Professor Burn declared conflict of interests to a number of Pharmaceutical companies who make drugs for Parkinson’s disease, including Teva and Lundbeck here. In one particular Azilect study, 16 participants were on the active drug – 3 withdrew and one suffered a Transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke). Not a good result by anyone’s standards.
Michael J. Fox is probably the most high profile Parkinson’s sufferer; he regularly funds Parkinson’s research through his foundation. Before his diagnosis, Robin Williams supported the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF). Here’s the tricky bit – For the last two years the MJFF have funded Parkinson’s research projects by Lundbeck, naively in my opinion. Depression is listed on the Azilect PIL as one of the most common side effects, hallucinations being also common. It should be noted that Lundbeck are also the makers of two commonly prescribed antidepressants: Celexa and Lexapro (same drug, different story).
Sadly, if Robin Williams was on Azilect, Celexa or Lexapro, he would have had no inkling that he was supporting a drug company that manufactures a drug which possibly killed him. The latter is obviously conjecture but whatever medication Robin Williams was on, the pharmaceutical industry will be in damage limitation mode. Our newspapers and TVs will be bombarded with more articles like the BBCs, more pharma funded studies and more ‘experts’ with conflicts of interests as long as your arm.
It now seems though, that the public are maybe not quite as stupid as the pharmaceutical industry previously thought.
P.S I’m not having a go at The MJFF, no doubt their intentions were good. I love Michael J. Fox; he’s fab in The Good Wife.