One of the most widely used anti-depressants in the world can be addictive, it has been claimed.The claims – to be made on Panorama, Sunday 13 October at 2215 BST on BBC One – come as the makers of Seroxat are attempting to have their drug licensed for use by children in America.
Seroxat was hailed as a wonder drug when it was released into the market 10 years ago. Millions of people have been helped by it and it has been a huge success story for parent company GlaxoSmithKline.
But for some users it can be an horrific experience with electric shock sensations, nightmares and suicidal thoughts.
Trembles and shocks
If they aren’t the right drug for you they can cause a range of problems, they can make you suicidal, they can throw you into a state of mental turmoil
Dr David Healy
Dr David Healy, an expert on Seroxat, said: “If they aren’t the right drug for you they can cause a range of problems, they can make you suicidal, they can throw you into a state of mental turmoil and even if they are the right drugs for you, in some instances they can leave you hooked.”
Panorama spoke to one woman who spent four and a half years taking Seroxat. She was prescribed Seroxat as a teenager after suffering from panic attacks during her A-level studies.
But for “Helen”, the drug which was supposed to be her saviour turned out to have a sinister side.
When she tried to stop taking the tablets at the beginning of the year “Helen” suffered terrible side effects, ranging from headaches, muscle pains, sweating and trembling to shocks which actually threw her off balance.
The only way to stop the symptoms was to go back onto Seroxat – although “Helen” did eventually take to chopping her pills up in a bid to lower her dosage without the side effects.
But as a result of her struggle to wean herself off Seroxat, “Helen” has missed much of her university course through illness this year, and is in danger of failing her course.
She said: “If I knew five years ago what I know now about the drug I never would have taken it and that’s what it boils down to. I didn’t know what it would do to me. And I would have never made the choice to take it had I known.”
But Helen is not alone. The Maudsley Hospital in London runs a national information service for people taking psychiatric medicines.
By far the most common complaint staff deal with is from callers who are having trouble coming off Seroxat.
David Taylor, chief pharmacist at the hospital, said: “If a patient is to stop taking Seroxat suddenly, then usually they would quite soon become quite anxious. They may feel very dizzy and unsteady on their feet. Often people experience electric shock sensations.
Mutilation – Ed Casey
“They may also have a fever and feel generally unwell, and they also may experience mood changes or very vivid nightmares for example.”
Ed Casey was 17 when he started taking the drug. He was in a band and attracting record company interest. He was also suffering from anxiety.
His mother Glynis noticed an immediate change in his personality when he started taking Seroxat.
She said: “I think the one thing he said was that he didn’t feel real sometimes. It was very strange but, in his manner, he just became much more introverted I suppose and liable to go off into a mood for nothing at all really.”
But it wasn’t long before things became more serious, and Ed started to mutilate himself using razors and burning himself with cigarettes.
Effective – Dr Alastair Benbow
He was never told that the drug could have been responsible for these things.
However, the drug’s maker GlaxoSmithKline denies there is a problem. Their packaging information actually says the drug is not addictive.
It maintains that Seroxat is a safe and effective drug. Dr Alastair Benbow, Head of European Clinical Psychiatry for GlaxoSmithKline said it was a “well tolerated medicine that has been used extensively around the world over the last ten years”.
He denied claims that the drug could be responsible for violence in users, saying there was no “reliable clinical evidence that Seroxat causes violence, aggression or homicide”.
Dr Benbow also said there was no reliable evidence that the drug could cause addiction or dependence, a fact which is “borne out by a number of independent clinical experts, by regulatory authorities around the world, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a number of other groups”.
He added that if you used the dictionary definition of addiction, then the phrase “could be applied to most prescription medicines”.
However it took a legal battle across the Atlantic to raise attention about the possible dangers of Seroxat.
Last year, GlaxoSmithKline was sued by Toby Tobin, after his father-in-law Donald Schell killed himself, his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter in Gillette, Wyoming.
Tim said: “I felt like something had almost turned him into a monster and, because there is no way that anybody in their right mind would do something like that because it was so horrible, and the Don that I knew wasn’t that type of person. The only thing that had changed was the medicine he was taking, the Paxil [the US brand name for Seroxat]”.
Donald Schell had been on Paxil for just two days and taken just two tablets before his killing spree. He had been depressed, but not suicidal, for the previous ten years.
Others who went on the drug ended up more restless, in a state of mental turmoil, complaining about dreams, nightmares
Dr David Healy
During the case, one man was allowed access to the GlaxoSmithKline archives in Harlow, that man was Dr David Healy.
He spent two days wading through more than 250,000 documents in the confidential archive for some reports on the clinical trials for Seroxat.
When he eventually found the right files, it didn’t take him long to come to a conclusion.
“It seemed clear that some people that went on the drugs had no major problems, but equally clear that others who went on the drug ended up more restless, in a state of mental turmoil, complaining about dreams, nightmares and a range of things like this. These don’t seem to have been explored further in any great detail.”
He discovered around one in four of the healthy volunteers suffered this sort of mental turmoil on Seroxat – even when they were on normal doses and even when they’d only been taking it for a few days.
His conclusion was not accepted by the company, but it was accepted by the jury who found GlaxoSmithKline to be negligent and awarded more than $6m (£3.8m) in compensation.
However, Dr Benbow is still adamant that the drug was not to blame, saying: “This was a tragic case but we remain firmly convinced that Seroxat did not cause the tragic events in this case.”