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Are We Giving Our Soldiers Drugs That May Make Them Kill Themselves?

More soldiers than ever are on drugs that have been linked to suicide and violent behavior.

In 2009 there were 160 active duty suicides, 239 suicides within the total Army including the Reserves, 146 active duty deaths from drug overdoses and high risk behavior and 1,713 suicide attempts. In addition to suicide, other out-of-character behavior like domestic violence is known to erupt from the drugs.

More troops are dying by their own hand than in combat, according to an Army report titled "Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention." Not only that, but 36 percent of the suicides were troops who were never deployed.

The unprecedented suicide rates are accompanied by an unprecedented rise in psychoactive drug rate among active duty-aged troops, 18 to 34, which is up 85 percent since 2003, according to the military health plan Tricare. Since 2001, 73,103 prescriptions for Zoloft have been dispensed, 38,199 for Prozac, 17,830 for Paxil and 12,047 for Cymbalta says Tricare 2009 data, which includes family prescriptions. All of the drugs carry a suicide warning label.

In addition to the leap in SSRI antidepressants, prescriptions for the anticonvulsants Topamax and Neurontin rose 56 percent in the same group since 2005, says Navy Times -- drugs the FDA warned last year double suicidal thinking in patients.

In fact, 4,994 troops at Fort Bragg are on antidepressants right now, says the Fayetteville Observer. Six-hundred-sixty-four are on an antipsychotics and "many soldiers take more than one type of medication."

Of course, depression itself is a risk factor for suicide, so it is not always possible to tell if the disease or the drug is at fault. 

But many believe the dramatic and tandem rises in suicide rates and psychoactive drug rates are correlated. "Intuitively, it just tells you that there's a connection,"
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. told the  National Journal this month.

Troops may also be taking Chantix, an antismoking drug so linked to violence and self-harm that Secretary of the VA James Peake was forced to defend its use, even in drug trials, before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in 2008. "If you know the drug induces suicidal thoughts," an unappeased Committee chair Bob Filner D-Ca. asked Rep. Filner, "Why don't you just stop?"

Even widely prescribed asthma drugs like Singulair and Advair are linked to suicide, says the FDA, and have been cited in young people's deaths.

And who knows what happens when the drugs are mixed with mood stabilizers, insomnia and pain pills and antianxiety and antipsychotic pills -- combinations that have never been tested for safety? In June Marine Times reported 32 deaths on prescription drugs in Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) since 2007 and said an internal review "found the biggest risk factor may be putting a soldier on numerous drugs simultaneously, a practice known as polypharmacy."

Links between suicide and even murder-suicide and SSRI and SNRI antidepressants have been long recognized. Of course, not everyone on SSRIs will be a suicide risk; but the danger is serious enough that the automatic and “knee-jerk” military prescribing of the drugs should be investigated.

Traci Johnson, a healthy 19-year-old with no mental problems, hanged herself during Lilly trials of Cymbalta in the drugmaker's own clinic in 2004.  Red Lake shooter Jeff Weise, who killed 10 on a Minnesota Indian reservation in 2005, had just upped his Prozac. And the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was also on psychoactive medications, according to news reports.

Americans have doubled their antidepressants since 1999 so that 10 percent of the population, or 27 million, now take them. Suicides have climbed by 5 percent since 1999 and 16 percent in middle-aged adults. (The suicide rate actually doubled in Japan since SSRIs were introduced.)

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