Is a Leading Suicide Prevention Organization a Front for Big Pharma?

If you think you have been hearing a lot about suicide recently, it is not your imagination. The week of September 5-11 was declared National Suicide Prevention Week by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). According to its website, AFSP is the “leading national not-for-profit organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide.” Yet due to its Pharma relationships and continued Pharma funding, it could be argued that it is dedicated to profiting from suicide.


How does the group allegedly profit from suicides? Its emphasis on “screenings” and “interventions” to get possibly suicidal people into “treatment” greatly enlarges the patient pool for expensive psychiatric drugs.

Like other groups accused of being Pharma fronts, it literally sells the fear of depression, mental illness and suicide to people who may be fine and asserts that “stigma” and “barriers” to treatment (e.g., drugs) are causing suicides. As with Pharma campaigns to convince people they are “depressed” and need pills, many emotional states have external causes like relationship, job and money problems and are not “mental illness.”

Stopping suicide seems like such a worthy cause that few dissect AFSP’s actual messaging. Yet it is illogical and insulting. First, with as much as a quarter of some US demographics (for example, women) on antidepressants and ads for them ubiquitous, there is hardly lack of “awareness” of depression and suicide, or “stigmas” or “barriers” to treatment. There is arguably more of a stigma for not taking antidepressants if you are depressed.

Secondly, do people who are depressed and suicidal really need Pharma and its “interventions” and quizzes to know it?

Finally, while the drugs that treat depression and prevent suicide (usually SSRI antidepressants) are helpful sometimes, they can also cause the very suicides they are supposed to prevent—a fact rarely acknowledged in AFSP materials, if ever.

In 2005, after meeting with parents whose children killed themselves on the drugs and public health officials, the FDA attached the following “Black Box” warning to SSRI antidepressants:

“Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of major depressive disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Anyone considering the use of PAXIL [one SSRI] or any other antidepressant in a child, adolescent, or young adult must balance this risk with the clinical need. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.”

Who Are AFSP?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a non-profit organization dedicated to “understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy,” founded in 1987, is steeped in Pharma money.

In 2008, AFSP merged with the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA or SPAN which had announced in 2004 that “SPAN USA’s efforts to develop and expand its suicide survivor network received a major boost with a recent grant from Eli Lilly and Company Foundation,” and “The foundation generously provided funding to support training, education and collaborative opportunities for SPAN USA’s existing network and enable further expansion into all 50 states.” No lack of transparency there.

In AFSP’s 2009 report, its leading donors were Pharma companies and it attributes a new screening project to “funding from Eli Lilly and Co., Janssen, Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.” It also credits Eli Lilly for printing its brochures. No lack of transparency there, either.

In 2011, AFSP appointed psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff president of the organization until his troubles began. Nemeroff became the subject of a congressional inquiry and was found to have so much unreported Pharma income that the $9.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study depression that he managed was suspended—something which rarely happens. He left Emory University in disgrace.

A 1999 textbook written by Nemeroff and his colleague Alan Schatzberg was found, in 2010, to be written and funded by GlaxoSmithKline. Both Nemeroff and Schatzberg remain at AFSP and are termed “leaders” of the organization.

AFSP’s 2012 annual report reveals a $100,000 donation from Forest Laboratories, and donations from Eli Lilly, Pfizer and five other Pharma companies.

“AFSP also boasts the honor of having a former president—David Shaffer—who was responsible for leading the development of the now somewhat infamous TeenScreen,” writes Mad in America. “TeenScreen is a controversial tool that Marcia Angell (Harvard Professor and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine)…described as, “just a way to put more people on prescription drugs.

The now-defunct TeenScreen, which screened young people for early signs of depression had “ties to the pharmaceutical industry,” reported the Scientific American.

Screening and intervention are widely accepted now to be nothing but sales tools—even to the mainstream medical establishment. In How We Do Harm, Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society and an oncologist, devotes a chapter to how prostate screening is often done for money—sometimes with disastrous results, including, in one chilling account, death.

This year’s AFSP annual report names Pharma companies Sunovion, Janssen, Forest, Pfizer and Otsuka America Pharmaceuticals as financial donors. AFSP also named Phil Satow, former Forest executive, to its Project 2025 Advisory Committee. Satow has worked for many Pharma companies and is co-founder and board chair of the very pro-drug JED Foundation.

Not Helping Our Troops

In this year’s annual report, AFSP claims it is addressing the high level of suicides in the military and lobbying for anti-suicide legislation. Yet AFSP, like many drug-funded researchers who have addressed military suicides, ignores the elephant in the room: Military personnel are typically young people, in just the age-range at which SSRIs can be most suicide-inducing—and droves have been put on SSRIs.

At the peak of the suicides in 2010, one in six service members was on a psychoactive drug, said Military Times, and “many troops are taking more than one kind, mixing several pills in daily ‘cocktails’ for example, an antidepressant with an antipsychotic to prevent nightmares, plus an anti-epileptic to reduce headaches—despite minimal clinical research testing such combinations.”

At one point, 4,994 troops at Fort Bragg were on antidepressants. Before psychoactive drug advertising, it would be unlikely the military would even accept someone on antidepressants, considering the stresses of war.

Suicide increased more than 150 percent in the Army and more than 50 percent in the Marine Corps between 2001 to 2009, reported Military Times, displaying (in a print edition) graphs of the suicide and prescription drug increases that bear a remarkable similarity. During that time, according to TRICARE data, 73,103 prescriptions for Zoloft had been dispensed to troops, 38,199 for Prozac, 17,830 for Paxil and 12,047 for Cymbalta—all of which carry suicide warnings, especially for young people.

Further suggesting that excessive SSRI prescriptions in active duty personnel—not a “barrier to treatment” or “stigma”—are the likely cause of the shocking suicide rates is the fact that, according to the Army, 85 percent of the soldiers who killed themselves had not seen combat and many had not even deployed. Clearly, they were not suffering from combat stress or head trauma from explosions.

Like AFSP, the military drug use was clearly linked to Pharma. While serving in the US Army Surgeon General’s Office as a psychiatry consultant, Elspeth Ritchie appeared in a webcast funded by AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly. The reasons for the suicides, she said in the webcast, were access to guns and “dear John” letters!

No one asked her how her explanation applied to suicides among the non-deployed.

Preventing Suicides or Causing Them?

Both the use of SSRIs and suicide are at an all-time high. While it cannot be deduced that the drugs are causing the deaths, it can easily be suspected they are not helping much, if at all.

While SSRIs are certainly useful in some depressions, they can be highly dangerous in the young people who not only make up active duty troops but who are the target of AFSP’s many campus-oriented “interventions.”

To nowhere acknowledge that SSRIs (or “mental health treatment,” as AFSP euphemistically puts it) can cause suicide, especially in young people, is shockingly unethical—even criminal.

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