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Consumers may be unaware of suicide risks associated with popular prescription drugs

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Suicide is a very real potential side-effect to some medications — medications that are prescribed to teens and young adults.

The dangers made headlines in the early 2000's when FDA and Congressional hearings were flooded with families who'd lost loved ones who had taken a class of antidepressants called SSRI’s. But now, time has passed and with it the public awareness of what drugs like Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac can cause a person to do. They’re still on the market and a whole new generation of parents is unaware of the deadly risks. A reality that pains Mathy Downing.

“It’s very hard for me to talk about what happened to Candace as a suicide, because it really wasn't. It was a drug-induced psychosis. Zoloft abducted our child and killed her. This was not a choice. This was not a choice she made,” said Downing.

12-year old Candace Downing wasn't a troubled kid.

In fact, she was just the opposite.

“She was probably the most compassionate child I’ve ever met,” said Downing. “She played lacrosse, in the summer she was on the swim team. She was an honor student. This child was life itself and she had time for everyone.”

For Candace, middle school brought excitement and a little anxiety when it came to taking tests.

The exceptionally bright 7th grader found herself mentally blocking on information she knew.

Her pediatrician recommended a psychiatrist, who recommended the anti-depressant, Zoloft.

I sat at the dining room table of Mathy and Andy Downing, Candace’s parents. We were surrounded by photos, awards and memory books recalling a vibrant girl smiling, laughing and surrounded by friends. "She was never depressed,” said Andy. “She had anxieties from testing at school. Had a lot of friends. Played basketball on a team. And I just kept asking myself over and over again, ‘this doesn't make sense," 12-year-old girls don't hang themselves.”

What the Downing's discovered after their daughter's death, was that suicide can be a side-effect of Zoloft and other SSRI's-an abbreviation for the popular class of antidepressants called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. The Downing’s sued Pfizer and settled out of court.

Now, 15-years after Candace's death, the Downing’s are still sounding the alarm about Zoloft and other SSRI's, which remain on the market, and are reaching new generations of parents, with no knowledge of the risks and no recollection of the FDA hearings that got the attention of the nation in the early 2000's.

Because of the risk of suicide, particularly in young people, in 2004 the FDA required the makers of all SSRI's to put "black box warnings" on the drugs.

“A black box warning means there's serious adverse events. There could be a potential for death," said Kim Witczak.

Witczak sits on the FDA's Psychopharmacologic Drug Advisory Committee as the consumer representative, debating the merits of new drugs and their safety.

It's a position to which she never aspired.

“I like to call myself the accidental advocate because I never set out to do this,” said Witczak.

Like young Candace Downing, Witczak's husband, Woody, was also put on Zoloft - not for depression - but because he was having trouble sleeping.

Weeks later, while Witczak was on a business trip, she got a call that would change the trajectory of her life.

“I get a call from my dad and he's like 'it's bad, it's bad' and I’m like, what do you mean it's bad? 'Woody's dead.' I’m like, what?? And they're like, 'he's dead. He's hanging from the rafters of our garage.'”

In a lawsuit Witczak brought against Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft, documents showed the company knew about particularly troubling side-effects - like patients feeling as though their heads were detached from their bodies and they were looking in.

A company memo tells Pfizer’s sales team that information was "not suited for distribution to general practitioners."

Yet - GP's are some of the biggest prescribers.

It's estimated that about 60-percent of mental health drugs are prescribed by family doctors.

The Downing’s say they didn’t know about the side effects or that Zoloft is not approved to treat anxiety. They say they simply trusted their doctors.

“Kids are being given Zoloft for bedwetting, nail biting. Test anxiety? What child dies from test anxiety?” said Mathy Downing. “In retrospect, we never should've given it to her at all.”

“The whole system's built on trust,” said Witczak. “You go to your doctor, you trust that your doctor, whatever the doctor's going to do, you trust their advice. And the doctor trusts that the FDA has done their work, so the whole system's built on trust. And so when I’m out there, that's one of my goals today is to try to get people to pay attention so they don't come back afterwards and go 'How come I didn't know?'"

Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft declined an interview but provided this statement, saying:

"Patient safety and the appropriate use of our medicines are of the utmost importance at Pfizer. It is important that people with depression and other serious mental health disorders work with their healthcare providers to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that helps them to identify the right medicine, to manage any potential symptoms or side effects, and how and when to discontinue their medication."

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