From The Herald Scotland: “Today, selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly used form of antidepressants but, as a Panorama documentary this week highlighted, there are signs that history was soon repeating itself. A confidential Pfizer memo leaked to the programme showed that the drug company, which manufactured the antidepressant Zoloft (sertraline), had been aware that some patients were exhibiting signs of dependence back in 1996. In a document written ahead of a meeting with Norwegian regulators in 1996, officials for the pharmaceutical giant noted that ‘we should not volunteer to describe the withdrawal symptoms but have an agreed list prepared in case they insist.’ These included ‘sensory disturbances, sweating, insomnia, nausea, agitation, anxiety.’
By 1998, Harvard medical school researchers were raising the alarm after their own research found that more than 60% of patients who took sertraline or paroxetine (brand name Seroxat) for between four months to two years would experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping, including severe and lasting harm in a small group of patients. For some it was easier to stay on the medication permanently than suffer the side effects of trying to stop.
Despite these red flags, the message from psychiatry over the next 20 years remained that withdrawal from antidepressants was ‘mild, self-limiting and tends to resolve over a week.’ For many patients that will have been the case, and for many others the benefits of taking them have been nothing short of life-saving.
But it is also true that campaigners who tried to draw attention to a darker side of antidepressants were shouted down, dismissed, or accused of ‘pill-shaming.’ Doctors, psychiatrists and academics — sometimes speaking out only after direct, personal experience of withdrawal — were gaslit as cranks or met with outright hostility. All too often questioning the efficacy of antidepressants was conflated with diminishing the seriousness of depression itself as an illness.