Mental Illness Treatment, Stop the Stigma

Generation Rx – Weighing Medication Risks & Benefits

Letters from Generation Rx

I recently watched the documentary Letters From Generation Rx, which looked at instances of people experiencing significant side effects while on psychiatric medication, including people who took the lives of either themselves or others while on psychiatric meds.

One man featured in the film was a Canadian Member of Parliament whose teenage daughter had died while taking medication.  He expressed his belief that Big Pharma has made its way into “every institution in our society we rely on for critical thought”, echoing the sentiments of another interviewee who believed that coroners investigating drug-related deaths were  “the first line of defense for the industry.”

One statistic mentioned by the Member of Parliament was that adverse reactions to pharmaceuticals are the fourth leading cause of death.  I was skeptical of that, and it turns out this was for good reason.  The paper where that statistic originated did some fishy extrapolation to arrive at those numbers; additionally, it looked solely at people who died while in hospital and did not consider deaths occurring in the community.


Two men were interviewed who had killed their children while taking SSRIs.  One of them had found out afterwards that because of a genetic polymorphism his body was unable to properly metabolize the Paxil that he had been taking.  He was found not criminally responsible for the deaths because of his mental state at the time (this is the Canadian equivalent of the insanity defense).  

Both of the men interviewed, as well as their families, attributed the violent behaviour to the medication.  The film also suggested that mass shootings are often related to psychiatric medication.


A mother and father spoke about their teenage son coming home with a sample pack of the antidepressant Cipralex after going to see his doctor because of a cold.  Within a relatively short period of time, he left house while extremely restless, went to buy a rope, and then hanged himself.  While of course this is deeply tragic, something is clearly missing here; even the most incompetent physician is not going to give someone an antidepressant to treat a runny nose.

Operating on assumptions

Two parents talked about their daughter, who had been diagnosed with Tourette’s, being given the antipsychotic Haldol (haloperidol), and for them that just crossed the line.  They expressed their vehement belief that no 9-year-old should ever take Haldol.  

I think it’s problematic to let statements like this slide into a documentary when these parents are entirely unqualified to be making that broad judgment, regardless of whatever side effects their daughter may have had.  Haldol is, in fact, approved for pediatric use for Tourette’s, and while regulators may have their shortcomings they are still in a better position to make these judgments than people with no medical training whatsoever.

The problem with fear-mongering

Fear-mongering like this may seem to be helpful in raising awareness about serious side effects, but my sense is they cause more problems than they solve.  There’s tremendous stigma around psychiatric medications, which makes it more challenging for people struggling with mental illness to make decisions around treatment.  It’s more useful to present the risks in context to empower people to make the best decisions for them.

With any sort of treatment, medication or otherwise, there should always be an individual weighing of risks vs benefits. What’s important to consider, especially for psychiatric conditions, is that the risk associated with no treatment, including suicide, can be very high.

All medications carry some level of risk, and the risk that’s considered acceptable depends on the nature of the illness. With potentially deadly illnesses, the tolerable potential risk is going to be far higher than for a minor ailment.  With higher risk medications, it’s incumbent upon prescribers to make sure they’re properly monitoring their patients, and just as important for patients to be proactive in reaching out to the prescriber if things are going wrong.

The FDA black box warning

In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required a “black box” label on all SSRIs warning that they could increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour in children and adolescents.  This has not been demonstrated in studies of adults using SSRIs.  It’s also important not to confuse this with the spike in suicide risk that occurs when someone has started to respond to treatment but their mood hasn’t caught up yet, which means they may have the energy to act on suicidal thoughts that were already present.  Again, knowledge is key, and everyone involved needs to understand what to watch out for.

What we need most is not fear.  We need factual, unbiased information so that we can make the right decisions for ourselves. The more openly we can all talk about it, the better.  Personally, the risks associated with taking my medications for depression are far outweighed by the very real risk of suicide if I don’t take them.  We’re all different, but that’s me.

For more on psychiatric medications,the Psych Meds 101 series covers:

Psych Meds Made Simple by Ashley L. Peterson book cover

Want to know more about psych meds and how they work?Psych Meds Made Simple is everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about medications. It’s available on Amazon.

For other books by Ashley L. Peterson, visit the Mental Health @ Home Books page.

8 thoughts on “Generation Rx – Weighing Medication Risks & Benefits”

  1. And balanced and sensible article. The real fact remains however that for many people medication simply does not work. And that if depression is ever to be conquered, we need radical solutions and radical research. Much publicity recently has surrounded the use of psychedelics but my suspicion would be that most of such claims are exaggerated hype. We will see. Depression is a terrible curse and an appalling burden to live with. Personally I have not found much useful help out there when push comes to shove.

  2. Great blog post, and very informative/insightful! I hate it when people take a few extreme cases of things gone wrong and use those cases to make something seem scary. It would be like saying, “Don’t wear your seatbelt, because there have been all these odd occurrences where not having the seatbelt fastened saved this person’s life in a wreck.”

    On the other hand, it’s always great to research a drug before taking it. There’ve been times where I balked at a drug for intuitive reasons, and I’ve had the same thing happen to friends. I think if a drug is wrong for you, your intuition will try to tell you. I think too many people bring home a prescription for themselves or their child and just start taking it. That might be fine for an antibiotic, but for a psych med, it bears putting some thought into.

    The warning on SSRIs irritated me because of how misunderstood it was, like, “Oh, no! This antidepressant is going to randomly and arbitrarily make me suicidal,” when the reality is what you described involving getting a bit better and then finding the energy to go commit suicide.

    Great post!! I preordered your book a while back and am excited to read it in a few days!! YAY!

  3. I’ve been on anti depressants for the last 16 years and like you if I stopped taking them I would most probably be very suicidal. They aren’t a cure but it does make life more bearable. My Psychiatrist always says it’s about quality of life. Which I tend to agree with.

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