The Plaintiff Was Unhappy

Prozac improved the nation’s mood when it came on the market in 1987. Earlier antidepressants had caused many side effects and were potentially lethal in overdose. Prozac appeared to be both a godsend and a blockbuster. It was effective, easy to administer and less likely to be used by depressed patients as a means to commit suicide. It was a boon to the bottom line of its manufacturer, Eli Lilly, but it also became a cautionary tale for the drug industry—of pharmaceutical success inspiring suspicion, controversy and backlash.

Soon enough a Harvard professor, Martin Teicher, published reports of six patients who developed suicidal thinking while taking Prozac, and the Church of Scientology campaigned against it. By 1990 stories about the purported dangers of Prozac screamed from the headlines and fell from the lips of Hugh Downs on “20/20.” Was Prozac causing patients to commit suicide?

In 1991, the Food and Drug Administration convened a committee of experts to study the matter. As it turned out, Mr. Teicher’s six patients had been deeply depressed for years, medicated with multiple drugs and in several cases had attempted suicide before they first ingested Prozac. The Scientologists rested their arguments on anecdotes, not data. The committee concluded that Prozac did not trigger suicides in adults.

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